This review contains spoilers.
I’ve always championed this powerful little trilogy from Brooklyn author C.A. Higgins. Upon falling in love with her characters and her writing in Lightless I immediately implored my colleagues to read it (and succeeded). When Supernova took my breath away by managing to far outstrip the first book I sang its praises and I still consider it to be a wonderous achievement.
It’s for those reasons that I entered into Radiate with a lot of weighty expectation. Ananke was in her full wrathful flow. Althea was in a horrific, imprisoned Hell. Ivan, Mattie and Constance were navigating the still very bloody fallout of the System’s demise. Everything was primed for a stunning finale.
For the most part, Higgins satisfied those expectations and delivered a conclusion full of her usual intricate expertise, but one which proved somewhat different (orthogonal, if you will – to use a word from the book) to my initial expectations.
In the Acknowldgements for Radiate, Higgins mentions that her friend (upon reading Lightless) stated: “You realise you’ve written a love story, right?” And I think that’s the perspective that you should adopt when going into Radiate too. Higgins explores all of her usual content, but this time she opens a romantic door between two characters.
If you’re a fan of the series then you might have already guessed that it is Ivan and Mattie that I am referring to. Personally, I was a little surprised – not by their closesness, but by Higgins’ choice to definitively open that door.
We’ve always known Mattie’s sexual orientation and we’ve always known that Mattie and Ivan have spent a lifetime protecting each other and being there for one another, but I didn’t think the spine of that sub-text would ever actually be cracked.
Towards the end of the novel Higgins begins to drops hints in her intersplicing flashbacks, such as Mattie stating: “It’s not like that,” when someone questions whether he might be in love with Ivan.
From that little clue onwards, the romantic gestures and interactions become far more obvious (it’s a little heavy-handed how they suddenly escalate); a touch of the foreheads here, a temple kiss there. Then near the novel’s close – when faced with their likely demise – Mattie ‘suddenly has no more reason to ignore the impulse’ and kisses Ivan, who reciprocates.
I’m very pro increasing the amount of non-heterosexual relationships in modern fiction (it’s something we need across all mediums) and it warms my heart to know that Mattie and Ivan find comfort in one another.
I’m not entirely sure, however, that the series needed to take that route and I wonder if it might have worked better to leave it as a romance unsaid, unconfirmed (but still clearly evident).
Returning to the structural layout of the novel, this time Higgins opts to hop between present scenes – confusingly labelled ‘Forwards’ (sometimes a ‘Forwards’ follows a ‘Forwards’ but it is still the present) – and flashback scenes, which she labels ‘Backwards’.
I can definitely see how these flashbacks sometimes enhance the present narrative, but continually being hurling into the past does grate on the patience a little (remembering that fans are desperate to know how the series will end – i.e. move forward) and for the first 20% of the the book I was a little put off by this structure.
Once our duo find The Huldren – the first ship they find that’s been stamped by Ananke – the narrative kicks into force. We’re taken on what is essentially one long search mission to find Constance and it’s a mission that never achieves its goal, which is a daring choice.
Given how much time Higgins spends re-mystifying Constance (we get a lot of her in flashback, including some key lines like: ‘I did it because it was wrong and I acted to fix it’), it seemed certain that we would eventually regroup with her, but instead Mattie and Ivan give up on their goal, deciding that she is already as good as dead. Higgins kills off a few other key characters too, signifying that this is very likely the final book in her Lightless series.
Which does feel a little bit like a waste to me. Characters like Ananke (and the fused Althea) are so unique and brilliant that it felt like we’d get more out of them than we were eventually given. This could easily have been a longer series of books which could have seen Ananke grow in power and a new threat arise in the System’s place.
But as you’ll realise towards the novel’s end, as much as it might seem so, this is not a story about interplanetary war and revolutionary terrorism; at heart this is a story about four core characters (and one quantum computer) and their interactions with one another.
Bearing that in mind, you can see why Higgins chose to end her magnificent trilogy the way she did; more concerned with heart than with political outcomes. We do see the horrors of war, the fragility of leading a rebellion, how the mind if a terrorist works, but this is a story about a few key people in the thick of the war.
It’s about companionship that would make you do anything for someone and about a parent’s obligations when faced with a child who commits horrors (something we see regularly in real life news when a mother or father is shocked by the news of their child having committed a terrorist act).
Higgins at one point has a character discuss the Welsh origin of the name Mallt-y-Nos, which I think is a really nice touch. The meaning of the word Ananke is also broached. Apart from the Sons of Nike, Higgins has always been truly phenomenal at crafting character names.
Even more pleasing is the myths that Ivan tells Mattie (in flashback) towards the end of the book. He tells the story of Blodeuwedd, which is about a hero having a bride made of flowers because he gas been cursed to never have a human wife.
The myth is so bizarre and wonderful (and Mattie comments as much) that I suspected Higgins might have created it herself, but research shows that it’s a genuine historical myth.
There are other moments of wisdom too, which do come from the mind of Higgins. ‘Ghosts do exist, not as dead people walking around but as memories,’ was one that struck me. A brief mention that the System had never been that fond of religion also intrigued me.
This third instalment is as powerful, intelligently written and meticulously crafted as I’ve come to expect from Higgins. After about the 20% marked it really sucked me in as much Supernova did (my favourite entry).
It really gratified some of my expectations while forcing me to realign some others. I do think there’s some wasted potential in Higgins’ decision to end the lives of certain characters here, but I admire an artist who can decisively chouse to need their work early and on their terms.
Definitely pick Radiate up if you’re a fan, or be sure to begin the trilogy from the start if you’re new to Higgins. She’s a remarkably powerful voice in modern Science Fiction and I’m certain that her future projects will prove as ingenious as this magnificent trilogy proved to be.
Image credits: Penguin Random House, Tor