#RRSciFiMonth Book Review: Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black
Sci-Fi November is a month-long blog event hosted by Rinn Reads and Over The Effing Rainbow this year, created to celebrate everything amazing about science fiction! From TV shows to movies, books to comics, and everything else in between, it is intended to help science fiction lovers share their love and passion for this genre and its many, many fandoms.
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Ace (September 6, 2016)
Length: 482 pages
Ninth City Burning is an impressive debut, built upon an array of inventive ideas and wildly original world-building. It may be a science fiction novel at its core, but it also contains plenty of elements that would not be out of place in a fantasy epic. The story, which takes place hundreds of years in the future, is told through no less than half a dozen diverse narratives all woven together to form its brutal premise of war between humanity and an invading alien race. Despite this feast of creativity though, in some respects, Ninth City Burning is also an excellent example of too much not always being a good thing. It is ambitious for sure, but like a lot of debuts, I feel it also stumbles a bit from attempting to accomplish more than it can handle.
Five hundred years ago, Earth was nearly destroyed by the “Valentines”, named for the day they attacked. They brought a seemingly unstoppable weapon, a reality-bending force known as thelemity which they used to raze entire cities to the ground. But in doing so, the aliens also unwittingly “unlocked” the latent ability to use thelemity in a number of humans, thus giving Earth a fighting chance.
However, even though humanity now possesses the same weapon as the enemy, the Valentines are still gaining ground, putting pressure on the various Earth precincts to provide more resources and soldiers for the war. Involuntary drafts are in effect to keep fighters flowing to the front, and those with a talent to manipulate thelemity are swiftly identified by the Legion and sent to military academies to hone their power. Those who refuse to fight are banished to the far realms, forced to live as disassociated wanderers and outcasts.
Pretty much every group involved in the war is represented in this novel, starting with Jax, a 12-year-old boy already with the weight of the world on his shoulders. As a Fontanus, he has been identified by Legion as a source of thelemity, which means his survival on the battlefield is paramount and entire squads are trained on how to keep him safe. But though he is always surrounded, Jax has always felt a sense of loneliness created by the distance between himself and fellow soldiers. Then there is Naomi, a young girl from one of the unincorporated groups who had no idea that humanity was even at war with aliens. Her world turns upside down when she is suddenly identified as one of the rare individuals who can bend thelemity. Naomi’s sister Rae, a woman in her late teens faces a similar shock as she is sent to a military academy to train with students much younger than her. Another key character is Torro, a factory worker in a settlement that churns out soldiers and supplies for the war effort who becomes a reluctant but brave fighter after he is caught in the draft. On the Legion side of things, there’s Vinneas, an officer and a brilliant tactician, as well as Kizabel, an eccentric engineering genius.
There were probably a couple more POVs, but at this point I think I’ve named all the memorable ones. As I had alluded to before, this book could have been improved by cutting back in some areas, and the first thing I would have reduced is the number of perspective characters. The story reached the critical mass of POVs early on and I felt that more actually became unnecessary, distracting, and even ineffectual.
The concept of thelemity could have been introduced earlier as well, and that might have been possible if the introduction had been shorter and less cumbersome. Even so, I actually enjoyed the first half very much; it was the second half that ultimately took away much of my initial excitement by expounding on the details of the war against the Valentines. So, maybe just an overall trimming down of the various plot threads to improve pacing and flow wouldn’t have been such a bad thing either.
Still, there were some great ideas in here, when the story wasn’t struggling under their weight; I loved the concept of thelemity, which in akin to magic in many ways, and there were also numerous examples of fantastic and original world-building. One thing I can say for this book is that it is wholly unique, and it also has genuine wide appeal for audiences across the YA and adult spectrums.
In sum, Ninth City Burning might not be perfect, but it would also be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. It is a solid, dynamic debut with some strong ideas, and J. Patrick Black is clearly a talented writer with lots of potential. This being the start of a new trilogy I hope that the sequels will move away from “first book” problems as the series matures.