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Literature / Towers Trilogy

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The Towers Trilogy is an Urban Fantasy series by Karina Sumner-Smith.

Xhea lives in a post-apocalyptic city where magic serves as currency. Those rich in magic reside in great floating skyscrapers called Towers, while the poor must scrape out a living in the ruined Lower City below, always wary of the night walkers which emerge from the wastes to savagely murder anyone caught without shelter.

Life is particularly difficult for Xhea because she has no magic at all, meaning she is perpetually broke. Even if someone else transfers magic to her, her body can't process it; it quickly burns away while affecting Xhea like a drug.

Her complete lack of magic does offer one advantage in that it allows her to go into the city underground, which is painfully toxic to those with magic, in order to recover antiques from before the Fall. She also has another useful talent: the ability to see ghosts, a rare power that allows her to mediate between the dead and living and assist those who suffer from hauntings. Between the artifact-hunting and the ghost work, she's just barely able to keep herself fed.

Everything changes for Xhea one day when a man comes to Xhea dragging the ghost of a girl behind him. Xhea offers her usual services; but the ghost, Shai, turns out to be anything but usual. She is a Radiant, a wellspring of magic power; and even dead, her ghost produces more magic power than everyone else in the Lower City combined. Suddenly in possession of a fortune which she herself cannot use but which anyone else would kill for, Xhea finds herself suddenly beset by enemies from all sides. And as she fights for her life and Shai's freedom, a dark magic begins to awaken within her: an uncontrollable power which threatens to bring death to all around her.

The series consists of Radiant, Defiant, and the forthcoming Towers Fall.

The Towers Trilogy includes examples of:

  • Addictive Magic: Due to being an Un-Sorcerer, Xhea's body can't process magic. Instead of being able to use it to cast spells, it affects her like a drug. Xhea often accepts payment in magic, despite her inability to use or re-sell it, because she's addicted to the sensations it causes.
  • After the End: The series takes place after an event called the Fall, which wiped out modern society and caused a magic-based society to rise among the ruins.
  • An Astral Projection, Not a Ghost: When Xhea first meets Shai, she assumes that Shai is a ghost. Shai turns out to be technically still alive, just separated from her body. However, she does subsequently die and later returns as an actual ghost.
  • And I Must Scream: Radiants produce more magic than their bodies can contain, causing them constant agony and eventual death. Because the vast amount of magic they produce makes them valuable, the Towers go to great lengths to keep them alive for as long as possible — and when they do finally do, they bind the ghost into a new body to start the process over again.
  • Blind Seer: According to Ieren, most people with dark magic are conventionally blind but don't realize it because their power allows them to see much more than ordinary people do.
  • Came Back Wrong: Xhea once witnessed an attempted resurrection gone horribly wrong. An attempt to bind a ghost back into its reanimated body left the spirit in unbearable agony and forced Xhea to mercy-kill it.
  • Car Fu: The bounty hunter Daye is extremely calm and reserved, never so much as raising her voice — until an assailant harms her partner Torrence. Then she flips her lid in spectacular fashion and rams a stolen aircar into the perpetrator.
  • Child by Rape: According to Marna, Xhea's mother became pregnant with her after being raped.
  • Empty Shell: The zombie-like night walkers are the result of a ghost being pulled out of a still-living body.
  • Flying Car: The magitek-powered cars of the City are capable of flight, which is of course necessary to travel between the floating Towers.
  • Genius Loci: When she hears the Heart of Eridian singing, Xhea realizes that the Towers are alive. Ahrent Altaigh later tells her that exposure to magic changes thing; enough magic over enough time can give life to the inanimate. This leads Xhea to eventually realize that the entire Lower City is an enormous dark magic Genius Loci.
  • Ghost Amnesia: Xhea states that ghosts often forget details of their lives.
  • Ghostly Chill: One of the ways people can sense the presence of a ghost is a ghostly chill when they touch it.
  • Gladiator Games: Edren has gladiatorial arena where people fight with swords and spells for the entertainment of the public.
  • Grand Theft Me: Lorn's body is actually possessed by the spirit of his brother, Addis.
  • Hairpin Lockpick: Subverted. Xhea spends an entire hour unsuccessfully attempting to pick a lock this way using a filched surgical tool; finally, the tool breaks, and Xhea concludes that the door must be sealed by the strongest lock in the known universe.
  • Harmful Healing: One of the side-effects of Xhea being an Un-Sorcerer is that healing magic causes her agonizing pain. On one occasion, she's taken to a hospital and a well-intentioned doctor gives her a magic IV, which nearly kills her.
  • Heroic RRoD: At the climax of Radiant, Xhea draws so deeply on her dark magic that she feels something inside herself break. Over the course of Defiant, the nature of the damage is revealed: she broke a Power Limiter her mother placed on her to suppress her dark magic and keep it from killing her.
  • Horror Hunger: After meeting Ieren, Xhea begins feeling a terrible compulsion to devour the souls of ghosts.
  • I See Dead People: Xhea has the ability to see and interact with ghosts, an extremely rare talent.
  • Innate Night Vision: Xhea has unusual vision. Normally, she can only see in shades of gray, but can see perfectly well in darkness. When she gets high on magic, she is able to see in color, but loses her ability to see in darkness.
  • Invisible to Normals: Magic spells are invisible to those who possess little magic of their own, but are visible as glowing lines of energy to people who possess it in greater amounts. Ghosts are invisible even to potent magic users, capable of being seen only by Xhea and each other.
  • Living Battery: Radiants produce such immense amounts of magic energy that they are used as living batteries for the great floating Towers.
  • Mage Tower: Citizens who are rich in magic live in floating skyscrapers which hover in the air above the rest of the city.
  • Magitek: The City runs on it, a result of magic being applied over the post-apocalyptic remnants of technological infrastructure.
  • The Magocracy: In the Towers, magical energy functions as both currency and power. Those who produce the most magic are the most wealthy and powerful citizens of their home Towers — with the exception of the Radiants, who are imprisoned and used as living batteries.
  • Mercy Kill: Xhea finds herself forced to deliver a great many of them. She kills Shai to free her from her And I Must Scream fate. When her dark magic manifests, night walkers start seeking her out and begging her to end their tortured existences.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: At the climax of Radiant, after jumping off of Eridian Tower with Xhea, Shai demonstrates the not-previously-seen ability to shape her magic into wings.
  • Older Than They Look: Xhea is 15 years old, but looks only about 12. She believes that her dark magic has stunted her growth, though considering her perpetual poverty it's also possible that malnutrition is a factor.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Night walkers. They bury themselves during the day, and emerge at night to shamble around and tear apart anyone unlucky enough to get caught outdoors.
  • Out with a Bang: Xhea's mother, Nerra, was raped by a man who then died from her Touch of Death.
  • Phosphor-Essence: Radiants emit a magical glow. This applies even to the ghosts of Radiants, making them the only ghosts visible to ordinary people.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The Towers rely on enslaved Radiants as power generators. They are kept alive as long as possible, and even after death their ghosts are imprisoned to continue providing power.
  • Power Incontinence: Magic is tied to emotion, and losing control can result in a release of power called "radiating". People with potent magic are trained from childhood to control their magic energy using breathing exercises. Xhea never received such training, as everyone believed she had no magic; when her dark magic finally awakens, her radiating turns her into a Walking Wasteland.
  • Power Limiter: In Defiant, it's revealed that Xhea's dark magic was suppressed by one. It was a binding set by her mother to prevent the dark magic from killing her, which broke when Xhea pushed herself into a Heroic RRoD at the climax of Radiant.
  • Puppet King: Farrow is ostensibly run by Alden Kian-Farrow; in fact, the caster Ahrent Altaigh has turned him into a drug-addicted puppet.
  • Samus Is a Girl: The dark magic assassin who terrified Edren during the war was assumed to be a man, but was in fact Xhea's mother, Nerra.
  • Teen Pregnancy: According to Marna, Xhea's mother had her when she was only 15 years old.
  • Un-Sorcerer: There are many people with very little magic, but Xhea is the only person who has no magic whatsoever. This poses a number of problems: since magic serves as the currency of the setting, she is perpetually impoverished; and since her lack of magic causes pain to anyone who touches her, she is a pariah.
  • Unfinished Business: Ghosts are tied to the world by their unfinished business, which Xhea can see as a silver cord between the ghost and a relevant person or object. When the business is complete, or the cord is severed, the ghost passes on.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: As a Radiant, Shai has enormously powerful magic. However, since she was raised to be a Living Battery, she was never taught how to actually use it to cast spells.
  • Walking Techbane: Xhea becomes one when her dark magic awakens. Technically, it only disrupts other magic, not pure technology; but due to the magitek nature of the City, even devices which appear purely mechanical in nature are often powered by magic behind the facade. As a result, Xhea can't so much as press an elevator call button without shorting something out.
  • Walking Wasteland: Xhea, once her dark magic awakens. She goes to sleep beneath a tree in a park in the Towers and awakens to find the tree withered and the grass turned to ash.
  • Weakened by the Light: Night walkers are zombie-like creatures which are pained by daylight. They bury themselves underground during the day, and emerge to stalk the streets at night.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Xhea's dark magic negates both healing magic and her body's natural healing. As a result, the knee injury she sustains in Radiant does not heal, and grows progressively worse in Defiant.
  • You Can See Me?: When Shai first meets Wen, she is surprised that he can see her, not realizing that he is also a ghost.
  • Your Soul Is Mine!: Ieren eats ghosts. If none are handy, he can pull the soul out of a still-living person's body, resulting in the corpse becoming a night walker.