Review: Radiant (Towers Trilogy #1), by Karina Sumner-Smith

February 8, 2017

RadiantIn the crumbling ruins of a destroyed or decayed high-tech city, plagued after dusk by the once-human night walkers, Xhea lives among the dregs of society in the Lower City, the dwelling of those without enough magic in their bones to claim a place among the prosperous floating Towers above. But even here, she is the lowest of the low, for Xhea seems to be a singular anomaly in that she has no magic at all. She sees the world in shades of grey, and without a magical signature of her own everything from locks to lifts fail to operate for her, unrecognising of her humanity, for bright magic is life. Fortunately, her strange lack does seem to have left her with one gift, the careful employment of which lets her scrounge out a living, and sometimes even a taste of that elusive magic which restores the colour to her vision: She can see and talk to ghosts.

When Xhea strikes a bargain with a client to take the ghost of his daughter from him for a two-day reprieve, transplanting the ghost’s tether from him to herself, she brings an unexpected new friend into her life. Shai, the ghost, is Xhea’s opposite in almost every way, sprung from a wealthy life amidst the Towers, overflowing with bright magic — which is a problem, as ghosts, like Xhea, have no magic. Xhea has seen such a thing only once before, under horrific circumstances. Are the people of the Towers trying to bring back the dead? Or are they trying to do something even worse with these bright ghosts?

I signed up for a buddy read of Radiant months ago, and by the time I got to it, I’d pretty much forgotten what it was meant to be about. I didn’t even reread the blurb before starting, so I went in blind. Given I was a total blank slate, the setting cohered for me so fast, especially given the factors (magical floating towers) that sound like they should be hokey, but in practice really aren’t. Sumner-Smith quickly impresses with her ability to build the world in rich strokes without the crutch of heavy exposition. This feels very different from your average post-apocalyptic YA, not only in being more of a fantasy blend but in, surprisingly given those magical elements, feeling more real. I can believe in this place as a society more readily than many of the dystopias that stick to hard sci-fi.

I’m honestly surprised how this trilogy seems to have flown under the radar when so many readers are looking for YA books that are less focused on love triangles and more on friendship and family, because the female friendship here is the biggest thing to celebrate about Radiant. Xhea and Shai are such fabulous characters. They’re completely different from each other, yet they’re great expressions of two different ways in which to be brave. Xhea has a big, justifiable abandonment complex, and the walls she’s put up around herself have probably been a factor in what’s kept her alive so long in such desperate circumstances, but Shai’s influence shows her that some people are worth hurting for. Shai has been indoctrinated to live a life of agonising self-sacrifice that even death can’t free her from, and Xhea’s refusal to lie down and take it on both their behalves might be just what she needs to learn that it isn’t cowardly to refuse to be others’ tool any longer.

The story is divided into three parts that hold together excellently, never dropping the pace. I’m genuinely surprised to find that Sumner-Smith is a debut novelist whose focus until now has been short stories, because pacing is often one of my complaints when short story writers transition to novel-length fiction, but beginning, middle, and end are woven together perfectly, neither getting short shrift nor overstaying their welcome. I also find it immensely refreshing to read a story of this type in which no one acts stupid for the sake of the plot. Xhea and Shai are put into genuinely hard-pressed situations and they make sensible decisions, the decisions that I’d like to believe I’d make in such a situation rather than ones that leave me all-too-frequently yelling ‘But why wouldn’t you just try this?’ at the page. I also went to some lengths in my buddy read to praise the fact that the author went to some pains to really think through what the physical effects of the things she was putting Xhea through would be, and not to pull punches or resolve them with a convenient deus ex machina, whether it’s the fact that someone who isn’t eating properly does not have an endless supply of energy or the fact that a severe knee injury cannot be powered through with adrenaline and pluck, it needs an actual brace or it’s simply going to collapse. Having suffered a similar knee injury in the not-too-distant past, this level of realism made me almost irrationally happy. (I expect this is the feeling my horse-owning friends get when authors treat horses like actual animals and not slow, stubborn cars.)

And not a drop of romance in sight, much less a love triangle. This is just so solid all-around that I’m genuinely surprised it’s not a Hunger Games-level phenomenon, although I suppose quality has never been the determining point for those. I think this will also have a lot of crossover appeal to readers who don’t typically enjoy YA, because aside from a brief mention of her past which makes her current age explicit, I could’ve easily believed that Xhea was in her twenties.

My first five-star of the year. I can’t wait to see where the Towers trilogy goes next.

5 stars

Review: The Weight of the World (Amaranthine Spectrum #2), by Tom Toner

February 4, 2017

The Weight of the WorldAs Sotiris ascends to the Firmamental throne, he places himself fully under the thumb of Aaron the Long-Life, but one of his last free acts is to send Lycaste off into the guardianship of his old friend Hugo Maneker, with whom, accompanied by the Vulgar Huerepo, he might be able to unlock the key to the undoing of the Long-Life’s plans — the spirit that was once Perception, the Amaranthine’s perfect AI. Meanwhile, with the disappearance of their commander, Elatine, the Jalan assault on the Lyonothamnine throne has drawn to a stalemate, but the Prism races — the Skylings, to the Old World’s native Melius — take advantage of the openings left by the conflict to bring chaos deeper into Firmamental territory. Through these troubled lands, Pentas and Eranthis follow the ancient immortal Jatropha to the home of Callistemon’s family, with the most precious of cargoes. Their arrival could change the balance of power in the Old World, if they can avoid those out to thwart it.

The Weight of the World expands on the scale of the first book in every possible way. We have more characters to follow, with the story divided into five main threads — Lycaste, travelling with Maneker and Huerepo; Jatropha, Pentas, and Eranthis; Maril and his crew, stranded on one of the moons of Zeliolopos; Ghaldezuel, accompanying the Long-Life; and poor, fading Sotiris, lost in the desperate search for his sister. But we occasionally flick away not only to other POVs, but to other times, stretching from far back into history when the Old World was still our Earth, to shortly before the events that opened The Promise of the Child. We get introduced to more species, further reaches of the galaxy, and more metaphysical oddities (that title is more literal than you might think).

Given how the first book was quite difficult to follow at times, especially in its first quarter, and that was operating on a smaller scale, it probably sounds like this one should be utterly overwhelming. But it’s so skillfully executed that it’s really not. It unfolds at a near-perfect pace, and I was able to get immersed in it to a degree that I couldn’t quite manage with The Promise of the Child as I was too busy trying to keep a mental map of where, what, and who everything was, and how it all intertwined. In The Weight of the World it’s seamless, and it’s nice to be able to bask in its cleverness without having to scramble for the glossary.

What I really love about this setting is how lived-in it feels. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief if a place feels authentic, and I really take that away from these books with the feeling that the Firmament is almost a place I’ve been to, like the different characters of each of the Old World’s Provinces rise off the page unspoken. It’s an immersion that’s definitely aided by the polished prose and rich environmental detail. A lot of science fiction is a compromise — the authors who are good at intricate tangles of plot aren’t always capable of bringing the depth of characterisation and the lush setting detail, or vice versa. Tom Toner has all three gifts.

One of the most compelling characters this time around is, without a doubt, Perception. There are tones of Banks’s wonderfully snarky, idiosyncratic AI here, but Perception also has a hauntingly childlike quality to it at times which makes a lot of sense as its background unfurls. And there’s something about that childlike element and the darkness of its background that never quite lets the reader sit at ease with it; children are, after all, capricious.

I also appreciated the deeper look into the Amaranthine mindset which explains why, beyond the simple attrition of age, their golden age is ending and they are so vulnerable to Aaron’s opportunism.

Essentially my only complaint is that Jatropha and the Melius sisters’ storyline progressed very slowly, and it felt like they were in a bit of a holding pattern to keep them in line with the rest of the threads being juggled. It’s nothing as egregious as Daenerys in the desert, though; there’s progress, it just felt a little jarring sometimes transitioning from the paciness of the rest of the book to their long journey.

I’ve seen comparisons of Toner’s work to Steven Erikson’s, and in The Weight of the World in particular I’d say they’re justified. They definitely share a knack for juggling an immense amount of plates and making long stretches of setting history feel inhabited. Much as I love Malazan, I’d also argue that there’s better characterisation here than in its first few books, at least.

Any doubts I carried over from The Promise of the Child were dissolved by this second book, and if the first one dissuaded you with its overwhelming first quarter, I’d say that The Weight of the World is well worth your persistence. This is some of the finest space opera I’ve read since Banks.

4.5 stars

Review: The Promise of the Child (Amaranthine Spectrum #1), by Tom Toner

February 4, 2017

The Promise of the ChildIt’s more than 12,000 years in the future, and humanity’s children among the stars are a collective of engineered species divided into the Amaranthine Firmament, ruled by the exceptionally long-lived but fading Amaranthine, and the Prism Investiture of lesser, shorter-lived races at its fringes. The Amaranthine were created by a process that rendered humans effectively immortal, but still vulnerable to accident or injury; the eldest among them are more than 10,000 years old, but at that point they begin to lose their minds, and live out their days in sanctuaries with the other insane elder members of their race. Given this tendency, it’s a little odd that their form of government is selecting the eldest among them to rule, but politics and logic rarely go hand in hand in the present, so there’s no particular reason why they should in the future. Their current Emperor is seemingly walking the path to insanity now, and another, Aaron the Long-Life, has risen to oust him with the claim to be older still. There’s just something not quite right about Aaron, from his appearance in the dreams of other Amaranthine to the nature of his shadow…

Against this backdrop, we follow three primary POVs: Lycaste, one of the giantlike Melius dwelling on the Old World (Earth), who lives an isolated existence in one of its remotest Provinces until the wider world comes knocking on his door; Sotiris, an aged and well-respected Amaranthine being courted by Aaron and his followers, and with a journey to make in memory of his sister; and Corphuso, a Vulgar inventor whose creation, the Soul Engine, could change the nature of mortality and warfare, and vastly alter the balance of power in the galaxy.

Definitely the most developed of these POVs is Lycaste’s, and it’s also the most compelling. When the book first opens, the reader is tossed into a confusing tumult of names, species, places, and events that don’t really mean anything; there’s very little in the way of context at this stage and no sign that things will slow down to let you orientate yourself. It’s when the narrative switches to Lycaste that you get a chance to breathe and look around, because he doesn’t really know all that much more than the reader. His life in the Tenth Province has been a quiet one, and when he’s forced out of it and into contact with the wider world, it’s just as disorientating an experience for him too. Sometimes Lycaste is a frustrating character to share headspace with, because he’s socially graceless and has a discouragingly proprietary attitude towards the woman he loves, but rarely for this type of character, it works well, as not only are we not pushed to view him as anything else, but it’s made quite clear in his interactions with others that he isn’t neurotypical and that they are viewing events in quite a different light from our view through his eyes. I thought the author did a good job capturing his differences in perception and how frustrating an experience that can be from both sides.

Nonetheless, the initially opaque world-building that gives the other story threads their steep learning curve does gradually unfold before the reader in a way that, by the end of the book, makes it feel as intimate and familiar as a well-fitting glove. I suspect that the level of trust in the author required to get through the first quarter of the book may lose some readers, but it’s a trust that I found to be rewarded, as the end result was to build one of the few extremely advanced societies I’ve read about that felt lived-in and authentic.

The extremely layered world-building is balanced out by the relative simplicity of plot at its heart. The majority of Lycaste’s story is a bildungsroman, albeit one in a more creative and nuanced setting than most, and it takes the lion’s share of the page count. Sotiris is the most interesting as a person, but his path in this book is fairly clear from the outset, and the most compelling aspects of his story are setup for the next book. While he is the most minor of the three primary POVs, it’s Corphuso’s story that requires the most attention to detail from the reader, because there are political shenanigans that take careful reading to appreciate. Not unlike Sotiris, however, his destination is unsurprising, but it’s the route he takes to get there that fascinates.

Toner’s descriptive prose is quite lovely, rendering the environments of these exotic worlds in lush detail without getting bogged down in minutiae. It’s more matter-of-fact than a Kay or McKillip work, so those with a dislike for poetic ramblings won’t get lost in the prose, but for a debut author it is notably accomplished.

I have only one substantial criticism, which is that I believe the level of trust required to get through the total lack of context in the beginning of the book is going to alienate a lot of readers, and I think that that could have been addressed without substantially altering the story with a bit of restructuring, perhaps opening with Lycaste and gradually expanding from there once some trust has been established. I got through that section because I finish books regardless for review, and I’m glad I did since my persistence was so richly paid off, but I’ve already had to encourage one friend who was (quite fairly) discouraged by the difficulty of following the initial events to persist. It’s not unfair for a book to require a certain level of faith that things will come to make sense when it starts in medias res, but The Promise of the Child asks for more of it than most.

But with that caution in mind, I otherwise unreservedly recommend this to the patient space opera fan. This is a rich and creative debut, with a baroque and fantastical feel to it, and I think Tom Toner could be a talent to watch out for.

4 stars

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