Opening line: ‘We’re only a few minutes into our quiz when the sirens start, and the first thing I feel is relief, even though I know that’s totally wrong, totally not how I should feel.’
Jax is a twelve-year-old fontanus who has been raised in the military academy to defend Earth in a war that has lasted for centuries. Also at the academy are Vinneas, Imway, and Kizabel, older cadets about to become officers. Outside the Ninth City are the settlements; and outside those, the empty wildlands filled with tribes unaffiliated with the Principates and the nomadic traders who travel between settlements, belonging to neither the Principates nor the tribes of the lands through which they travel. Naomi and Rae, scouts of their caravan, cross paths with Torro of Granite Shore settlement. The young fontani, the artificer, the commander, the equite, the gunslinger, and the infantry soldier each have a role to play in the battle to defend Earth.
Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black is a difficult book to summarize without giving any spoilers. The structure of this debut novel was ambitious: seven perspective characters, each linked in some way to the other characters. When I saw from the description of the novel that it was a group of unlikely allies that would save the world, I expected that once the characters were assembled they would work together as a team to pull off some harum-scarum plan* that they had concocted, as is usually the case (and feels a lot like RPG campaigns). But I was wrong, and I love it when a sci-fi novel does something unexpected.
(Settle in: This is the longest book review I’ve written. Since I can’t discuss the plot without giving spoilers, I discuss the composition of the novel instead.)
Each of the perspective characters is linked, yes, but once they are all in the Ninth City, they are scattered across it playing their individual roles. Two are training as fontani; one is in boot camp; one is a pilot of an equus (a giant mechanized armor suit); another is an artificer building a new equus; one is a brilliant fighter being rushed through the academy; another is compiling the data of the recent Valentine battles and realizing that something terrible is about to happen. That is what is so ambitious: They are each telling their own story, and together you get what’s happening as a whole. What impressed me even more: Each perspective character has a distinct, unique voice. Four male narrators and three female narrators; four from inside the Ninth City, one from a settlement, and two from the outside; each narrator with its own supporting cast; each fully realized and dynamic characters. That is a feat well accomplished.
To be honest, I didn’t get hooked until I reached the second character’s perspective, Naomi. In retrospect, I understand why Jax was the best character to start with: He is able to introduce the reader to the setting, the concept of thelemity and fontani, and three other characters who become perspective characters later, and he’s a young and inexperienced character who can act as a guide to the reader without knowing much more than they do. The other Ninth City characters know too much; the ones outside the city know too little. Still, Jax had to grow on me and I’m not sure I would have kept with the novel if he were the only perspective character.
I loved the female narrators, especially Rae and Kizabel. (No surprise: Combine Rae and Kizabel and you pretty much have Tess Winters.) Not only were they each strong characters in her own right, they were essential to the world, plan, and novel without being romantic interests.** The female characters talk to other female characters about engineering and tactics. This novel passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
One benefit to using a variety of perspective characters in this way is that it allows the author to explain what is happening at different ends of a large military campaign without a lot of info-dumping exposition. It also allows the author a way to pass time without having to explain awkward jumps in time. Each time the narration switched characters the new perspective character would have also progressed chronologically. This way the reader always got to ‘tune in’ to the interesting parts of the story.
The thing with sci-fi set in a futuristic Earth is that the settings tend to be myopic. The entire world order has changed, but we are only told about a tiny slice of the new world. Take The Hunger Games trilogy for example: Panem has incredibly advanced technology and there is no mention of a world outside of what has become of North America. Though the Legend trilogy tries to include more of the outside world, it feels a bit shallow. Thus, I appreciated how thorough the setting in Ninth City Burning is: Not only are we given a description of the life within the Incorporated Peoples of Earth, but also a description of life among the ‘non-incorporated peoples’, the traders and tribes. I don’t need the details of how Ninth City is different from Third City, or how Granite Shore is different from another settlement; I appreciate knowing that the author has taken the time to acknowledge their existence and describe them indirectly. That’s good world-building there.
The war with the Valentines is vague at first, even why they are called Valentines, but the explanation for the five-centuries-long war is satisfactory. To say anything more would be spoilers.
The Valentines fight with technology that manipulates thelemity, which is another force of the universe (like electricity) that humans hadn’t discovered yet, but quickly learned in order to defend themselves. Thelemity is something like the Force in Star Wars, but only just. (Because of how space travel affects time, the fontanus tutor is centuries’ old and makes reference to a ‘force’, but none of the other characters know what he’s talking about.)
What the fontani can do with thelemity is nothing short of amazing and beautiful and terrifying, and what artificers can build using thelemity and revenni can do wielding those weapons are akin to what Tess can do with her inventions: a fusion of technology and something quite like magic.
I loved the concept of the fontani usikuu and mijmeres, and the descriptions of them both from characters within the mijmere and from those seeing only the outside.
Overall, Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black was a delightful surprise. Usually in science fiction I see the regular tropes done in new ways, but they’re still the regular tropes. But to see something new? In an author’s debut? An ambitious space opera in a single novel?*** That is a breath of fresh air.
* There was a harum scarum plan, and they all did contribute to its construction, but it wasn’t a group effort in the sense that they worked on it as a group. The whole city was involved. (And some of them had no idea what they were doing or why they were doing it.)
** There was a touch of romantic interest. It wouldn’t be realistic without any at all. But the romantic interest wasn’t: A) central to the plot; B) central to the purpose of either character; and C) didn’t take up narrative space that was better spent on more interesting parts of the story.
*** Black left an opening for a sequel, and I would certainly love to read one, but the novel also stands solidly on its own. A sequel that could live up to its prequel in this case would be challenging indeed. It might work with a different cast of perspective characters, but still with links to the earlier: Hexi, instead of Torro, for example. It would be difficult to find replacements for Naomi or Jax; however, any changes in their ‘voices’ could be attributed to more training and being older.
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.