All Her Bridges Burned Behind Her: Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

Defiant is Canadian author Karina Sumner-Smith’s second novel, the middle book of a trilogy that began with Radiant (2014). In Radiant, Xhea—fierce, isolated, careless of other people—found herself caught up in conflict and politics due to her ability to see and affect ghosts. One ghost in particular. Shai was, and is, a Radiant: a person who produces so much magical energy simply by existing that they are essentially an industrial-scale magic-energy power generation station, both rare and vital for the functioning of magic-based technology.

A Radiant’s power doesn’t end with their death, and even as a ghost Shai is an important resource. And she also becomes a friend for whom Xhea is willing to sacrifice herself to protect.

Defiant opens several weeks after Radiant’s conclusion. Xhea is still recovering from the injuries she suffered during the previous novel’s events, under the shelter of Lorn Edren and his powerful family in the Lower City, well away from the Towers who use the power of Radiants to keep themselves floating in the sky. She might have discovered that she possesses a power of dark magic, utterly unlike the bright magic of a Radiant, but right now she can’t fend for herself without assistance. She has Shai’s friendship, but a ghost isn’t very much help in the physical realm.

When dark magic similar to Xhea’s bores a hole through the defences at the base of Edren’s skyscraper, Xhea finds herself called upon to travel through the tunnels under the Lower City to investigate. Separated from Shai and carried off by forces from Edren’s rival, Farrow, Xhea finds herself confronted by the spectre of her heritage, and by the potential to learn to shape her dark magic—and to help a new Tower to rise.

Like Radiant, Defiant is a tightly-focused novel of character. (Although at times its intensity of focus veers into claustrophobia.) It uses its post-apocalyptic dystopia-with-magic landscape to great effect, highlighting the constraints that trap not only Xhea, but everyone around her. The floating Towers, constantly competing with each other, whose resources dwarf those of the inhabitants of the Lower City, divides the population into people who are “above” serious want and everyone else: a very literal upper class.

Radiant’s emotional arc focused on Xhea learning to allow herself to care about other people—or at least Shai. Defiant’s emotional arc is one where Xhea has to learn to let other people care for (and about) her. But Sumner-Smith is, it appears, too subtle a writer to turn that into the moral of the story: it’s more complicated than merely learning to trust. Xhea still has to navigate relationships that are either defined or very strongly coloured by their transactional nature, and to figure out which relationships might, perhaps, not be. While dealing with a mobility impairment, war in the streets, and isolation from her only friend.

Defiant differs from Radiant in not being solely focused on Xhea and her point of view. For the first time, we get Shai’s perspective, and her character arc is as compelling as Xhea’s. For Shai is invisible to almost everyone, known only by the effect her power has on the world around her, and she has never learned how to consciously manipulate and direct that power: to use it to have the effect that she wants. Now, separated from Xhea and unable to find her—believing Xhea to be dead—she has to work around her limitations and discover what she can accomplish on her own: discover whether, even to herself, she will ever be more than a resource to be used by someone else.

Defiant is a compelling novel of character. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down again, to such a degree that I walked to the train station still reading. Now that’s something I haven’t done for a decade. Tight, tense, and effortlessly readable, its climax is a thing of nail-biting intensity, and it ends with revelations, and more change to come. I can recommend it wholeheartedly—and I’m really looking forward to reading book three.

Defiant is available May 12th from Talos.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.


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