Stars: 5 out of 5.
This book is a rare mixture of post apocalypse and anti-utopia with magic and even zombies thrown into the mix. It takes an exceptionally good plot and a strong protagonist to make such an mixture work, at least for me, but Karina Sumner-Smith hit the bulls eye with this novel.
This is a story about choices and consequences. It’s about growing up and realizing that sometimes the wellbeing of another person is more important than your own comfort. But more importantly, this story is about a true friendship between two very strong but very different girls. Xhea is a girl without magic in a world where everything and everyone lives and breathes magic, but she can see and talk to ghosts when normal people don’t even believe that they exist. Shai is one such ghost, but a ghost that is vibrating with magic when no ghost should be able to generate any.
There isn’t much backstory about the world Xhea and Shai live in, which actually makes sense, because Xhea has no way of knowing what brought in the cataclysm that left the extensive ruins she lives in. There are the Towers – beautiful floating semi-organic structures where those who were lucky enough to be born with strong magic live. They live in symbiosis with those Towers: they create and maintain them with their excess magic and in exchange the Towers give them a home and a place to belong. There is a complex web of politics and commercial treaties as well as non-aggression pacts between the Towers. Their citizens live sheltered lives of privilege compared to those who inhabit the Lower City.
Anyone who doesn’t possess enough magic to be useful to a Tower is cast down to try and carve a life out of the crumbling ruins of the ancient City that sprawls on the harsh and barren ground below the towers. But even here, on the ground, the level of your magic is important and the stronger spell casters are recruited by the communities living in the husks of several skyscrapers. There, much like in the distant Towers above, magic is the only currency. You can get a meal and a place to sleep for a few renai – plastic pieces infused with the caster’s magic. You can get more if you sign a servitude contract with the skyscraper that sheltered you.
Xhea doesn’t fit into this world no matter how much she would love to because she has no magic at all, not a glimmer, not a drop. To everybody else in this society she is worse than useless – she is a burden, an oddity that is to be ignored or eliminated. She manages to stay on this side of starvation by offering her services to those who want to get rid of their ghosts, or who want to talk to them. Business isn’t booming because not many people believe in ghosts, even if the more magically sensitive can sort of feel their presence next to them. Xhea is jaded and bitter and very much out for herself… until a well-dressed man from the Towers asks her to keep the ghost of his daughter for a few days in exchange for renai and food rations.
I loved Xhea. She comes across as rude and selfish at the beginning of the book, but, as I described earlier, she has every reason to be. She’d had to survive on her own for most of her life, and the only time she really cared for someone, that person ended up abandoning her. But she evolves. She changes. She goes above and beyond what’s asked of her to help Shai once she discovers what fate awaits the ghost.
Shai is a wonderful character as well. She could have been a typical damsel in distress – stuck and helpless, waiting for Xhea to save her, but the author managed to give her agency as well. Which is no small feat considering that she is already dead at the beginning of this story. Yes, Xhea saves Shai, but Shai saves Xhea as well. They are two broken children who had been hurt by the world around them but who manage to comfort each other and draw strength from one another even in the face of very unfavorable odds.
The book itself is very well written. Xhea has a distinctive voice that drew me into the story from the first page and kept me engaged and interested until the very last one. I liked this world and I wouldn’t mind discovering more about it in the next books. And I definitely want to know what happens to Xhea and Shai in the next book.
In other words, I will definitely recommend this book to my friends. It’s a must read.