Defiant, by Karina Sumner-Smith

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Publication date – May 12, 2015

Summary: Once, Xhea’s wants were simple: enough to eat, safety in the underground, and the hit of bright payment to transform her gray-cast world into color. But in the aftermath of her rescue of the Radiant ghost Shai, she realizes the life she had known is gone forever.

In the two months since her fall from the City, Xhea has hidden in skyscraper Edren, sheltered and attempting to heal. But soon even she must face the troubling truth that she might never walk again. Shai, ever faithful, has stayed by her side—but the ghost’s very presence has sent untold fortunes into Edren’s coffers and dangerously unbalanced the Lower City’s political balance.

War is brewing. Beyond Edren’s walls, the other skyscrapers have heard tell of the Radiant ghost and the power she holds; rumors, too, speak of the girl who sees ghosts who might be the key to controlling that power. Soon, assassins stalk the skyscrapers’ darkened corridors while armies gather in the streets. But Shai’s magic is not the only prize—nor the only power that could change everything. At last, Xhea begins to learn of her strange dark magic, and why even whispers of its presence are enough to make the Lower City elite tremble in fear.

Together, Xhea and Shai may have the power to stop a war—or become a weapon great enough to bring the City to its knees. That is, if the magic doesn’t destroy them first.

Thoughts: Picking up shortly after where Radiant ended, Xhea is still in Edren Tower, injured with little hope of proper healing. Bright magic, the kind that nearly everyone has and thus the kind that is used for healing spells, hurt her, and her body seems bent on destroying even the most carefully set spells upon her. The council of the tower seems to want nothing to do with her and everything to do with Shai, the Radiant ghost who is still attached to Xhea and whose excess power is currently being used by Edren because nobody else is using it, and magic is needed to fuel almost every aspect of life in a Tower. But then inter-Tower politics get complicated and violent, Shai and Xhea are separated, and Xhea comes face to face with her own mysterious past and just what her dark power really means.

There’s a lot to like in Defiant. First, I do want to take a moment to talk about how Xhea’s disability was handled. And I think it was done rather well. From personal experience, at least, I think that her reactions to the whole thing were pretty understandable, and well-expressed. I can’t say I’ve experienced permanent physical disabilities like Xhea’s, but I’ve dealt with tenporary-but-long-term ones, and the experience was remarkably similar. The initial denial, the drive to not do much of anything coupled with the insistence that no help is needed. The willingness to do something that will hurt like hell and may not be permanent if it just brings even a bit of relief. The frustration over experiencing how your body doesn’t want to cooperate when there are things that you need to get done and it doesn’t feel like playing nice. It’s ever-present, but it doesn’t stop her from doing what she can do when it’s within her limits, and it doesn’t stop her from pushing those limits when she deems the situation worth it (such as being life-threatening if she doesn’t ignore the screaming tearing pain in her knee and walk faster). I think it was presented very well, as a part of the character that she had to learn to work around and work with, but never something that defined her or so drastically changed her that she became her disability.

Secondly, I really like the way Xhea’s dark magic was expanded upon and really used to good effect here. No longer is it presented as an entirely unique ability. Just a really rare one. We get more information about what it does, how it works, what can be done with it that wasn’t expected. We get to see both the negative side of it and the positive, and I really liked the way that played into how the novel ended. I don’t want to go into too many details, but suffice it to say that I was surprised. It may have been a little deus ex machina, but it all still fit very well into the world that Sumner-Smith created.

Xhea and Shai, as before, make a wonderful team, even when they’re apart and working independently of each other. I love their friendship. I love how they have such a close strong bond, and I love that (at least as of this book) it hasn’t turned into romance. I see so much in media reinforcing the idea that someone close to you can only either be family or a romantic partner, and it’s rare to see people so close and still fit firmly into the friendship category. Rare, and so very refreshing and welcome when it does happen. Honestly, these two are probably the best example of friendship I’ve seen in SFF in a long time. They were thrown together by circumstance, but since that event they’ve grown closer and rely on each other. They’re like the poster children for committed friendship! It’s great!

One of the biggest problems I had with the first book in the trilogy, the feeling that I’m really coming in the middle of the story and the feeling that I should already know what a lot of hints are referring to, happily doesn’t occur here. Much of the specifics I felt that about last time, too, get fully addressed, and instead of feeling like plot points were being dangled out of reach, I felt like I finally had all the pieces and they were all in the right place. There was still plenty to reveal and to hold back until the time was right, making a good sense of mystery throughout the novel, but it didn’t leave me feeling like I was floundering in some places, like I had last time. The additional upside to this is that now I also want to go back and read the first book over again, with all this newfound knowledge, to see if some scenes make better sense now than they did before.

When people say that this is a series with strong female protagonists, they aren’t kidding. They aren’t strong in the sense that they carry big guns and can kick the butt of any problem they encounter. They’re strong in the way that they’re very much themselves, reliant on nobody else to define them, and so powerfully real that you can’t help but be even a little bit motivated to emulate them.They stand out by not standing out, by being themselves instead of being the opposite of a stereotype (which, in itself, has pretty much become a stereotype), and it’s wonderful to see. If strength is defined by being your own person, then Xhea and Shai are fantastically strong.

This is a series that should be getting more attention and hype than it is. It may not be a ground-breaking game-changer for speculative fiction, but it’s got so much to it; a rich story, a future that isn’t obsessed with being defined only by its past, characters who are complex and real, and politics and magic in spades! It’s one of the best post-apocalyptic urban fantasies I’ve ever found, and in that meld of genres it’s got a fairly wide appeal. I can’t wait to read the trilogy’s conclusion, and to see what Sumner-Smith will do next.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

6 comments on “Defiant, by Karina Sumner-Smith

  1. Pingback: May in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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