Review: Towers Fall (Towers Trilogy #3), by Karina Sumner-Smith

April 6, 2017
Snumpus

Towers FallThe Lower City is alive, and its people are reeling in the wake of Rown’s devastating attack. Its heart is a dark mirror of the living Towers above, and into it the Spire has poured its dark magic — and now pours its poison. As the wounded entity seethes, the Spire commands the evacuation of all of the earthbound residents, out into the walker-filled wastes with no shelter and no resources, or they will perish as it scourges the Lower City to put an end to the rival it has created. Right when her city needs her most, Xhea finds her magic bound, and she and Shai must find another way to save everyone and everything they know from the impending clash of titans.

Too often the third book in a trilogy tries to go high-concept, and the author doesn’t really know how to ramp things up to that scale, so it either falls kind of flat and just doesn’t feel anywhere near as colossal as its premise demands, or the pacing gives me whiplash as the author just seems to give up and wrap it in a messy bow as fast as possible. Karina Sumner-Smith once again subverts, if not my expectations — I know she’s damn talented at this point — then my concerns, and delivers a novel that I found to be the perfect balance between the epic and the intimate, with pacing that leaves no fat to be trimmed.

All of the loose threads are neatly woven in by the end, with nothing suffering short shrift. On the personal level, everything from Shai’s relationship with her mother and the way she lost her father, to the origins of Xhea’s abandonment complex, and even secondary characters such as Wen’s closure with his son, are given a fair resolution. Meanwhile the whole city, above and below, shakes itself apart and we get answers about what the dark magic really is and has meant for these people, the atrocities wrought by the Spire, and the true natures of the Towers’ hearts.

And of course, Xhea and Shai’s relationship. Because that’s the only word for it as the subtext of the second book builds into, well, text. There are no deep declarations of love — a quiet ‘Yours, then,’ a small joy amidst the desperation of their world ending around them, is the closest we’ll come — it’s chaste but gently romantic, and after the way they have grown as people, together, it feels very much earned. And it’s a sweetly melancholy thing, when you know there can be no living happily ever after for someone who is not alive.

Sumner-Smith’s prose is, as it has been throughout the trilogy, a clean and evocative experience you can sink into without becoming lost in flowery word choices that would detract from the often urgent tone. I haven’t read any of her short stories and I don’t know much about how prolific she is in that field, so she may well have been honing her skills on short fiction for years, but for a YA author bringing home her first trilogy, she stands out from the pack in technical ability.

I am genuinely surprised that these books aren’t more hyped. They’re a tour de force of so many elements that I often see YA readers lamenting the relative dearth of. I love YA, but in a field currently drowning in love triangles and lazy wish fulfilment for characterisation, I rarely find a YA series I can be so uncritical of. I’d happily buy the author’s next works sight unseen. I can’t imagine a return to this world after its immensely satisfying and complete conclusion, although it might be fun to see how Daye and Torrence became what they are, but hopefully she will deliver on a new premise with the same richness of character.

5 stars

Review: Defiant (Towers Trilogy #2), by Karina Sumner-Smith

April 5, 2017
Snumpus

DefiantStill recovering from the knee injury she suffered at the end of Radiant, Xhea has spent the last couple of months cooped up in Edren, frustrating those around her — especially Shai — with her lack of motivation in doing what she needs to do to heal. When a terrified senseless ghost appears to her with a vague warning, presaging an attack on Edren’s underground defences, Xhea finally gets some of her spark back, only to be snatched away by one of the other earthbound skyscrapers to play a role in a scheme that might change the face of the entire city. The nature of the attack severs her bond with Shai, leaving the bereft ghost convinced that her companion is dead, and without any way to communicate with the people of Edren who are all she has left… and Xhea isn’t the only thing Edren stands to lose.

I love these books. They are so tightly written, well-paced, and beautifully characterised. Defiant manages to take a plot that I usually dislike — that of characters being separated because one of them lacks information the reader is aware of, and of taking most of the book to catch up to what we already know — and makes me really appreciate its implementation. Xhea and Shai’s bond is undoubtedly the best thing about the trilogy, so it’s inevitable that it causes a little slump when they’re apart for so much of the novel, but the closeness of that bond is also why separating them for a bit works to its advantage: They genuinely grow in a way that makes the separation feel uncontrived and the coming back together earned.

Shai is, I think, the more dependent of the two and so being in a situation where she has to stand on her own and help those with whom she’s unable to communicate fosters a lot of growth, and also cements that she loves Xhea for Xhea and not just because Xhea was her avenue to freedom.

Xhea gets some much-needed answers both about the nature of her powers (though there’s still a lot left for the third book) and her family history, and it’s also quite good to see her placed in a moral conundrum without Shai to serve as her moral compass. The exploration of her power and the morality of some of its uses is excellent; the family history is, I think, the one thing I would call out as a weak aspect of the book. I simply don’t buy that they would have been unable to find her if they had put genuine effort into trying, considering that they were aware of her power and would’ve been able to track her down with the same ease as her clients (which, as we saw at the beginning of Radiant, was hardly difficult). We seem to be expected to believe that this was the case though, considering the earnestness of her interactions with her surviving relative and that Xhea does very little emotional wrestling with it before moving on. It doesn’t ring quite true for someone with such an intense abandonment complex and the whole issue feels a bit swept under the carpet, but it serves to tie up the loose thread acceptably enough.

Defiant does for the earthbound skyscrapers what Radiant did for the Towers, bringing alive their culture and rivalries without excessive exposition, and does an impressive job of walking the fine balance of introducing a lot more secondary characters to care about — or feel sorry for — without detracting from the focus on Xhea and Shai. I feel like in this respect it was a little more nuanced than Radiant, where it was largely Xhea and Shai against the world and their opponents weren’t worthy of much sympathy; here the bad guys, insofar as there are any, are more pathetic than consciously cruel even though what they are doing is genuinely horrifying if you think about it deeply. Ieren is just a tool, despite what he can do, but he shines a light on the fact that Xhea is more than just her power, she’s defined by what she chooses to do with it.

Middle entries in trilogies often struggle, the infamous sophomore slump, but this is just such a smooth and powerful transitional book that I remain sincerely impressed that this is Karina Sumner-Smith’s first trilogy, and Defiant only her second novel overall. An epic third book awaits.

4.5 stars

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

February 8, 2017
Snumpus

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

Blog at WordPress.com.
%d bloggers like this: