LitStack Review: Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black

Ninth City Burning
J. Patrick Black
Ace
Release Date:  September 6, 2016
ISBN 978-1-1019-9144-2

This is our future – one that is unrecognizable. That it is our future is inconsequential.

It’s not clear why some people are fontani and most others are not. What is clear is that those who are fontani are the defenders of the world; it’s a great honor and a great responsibility. But twelve year old Jax sure doesn’t look like a defender. He’s kind of pudgy and kind of skinny at the same time, not especially bright; in fact, he’s not “really, really good” at anything. But when the sirens go off, it is Jax who is there to protect the other students at the Academy from utter destruction, should the need arise. While he’s not afraid of what he must do (not really), he is terribly nervous that he might let everyone down, because that’s what he seems to do best.

A caravan of nomadic foragers who call themselves Walkers have made their way to their winter rest at New Absalom and twelve year old Naomi is excited to be taking part in her first scouting party despite her older sister’s objections. But the scouts make a disturbing find:  the Great Ridge that forms the border of their territory above the Valley of Endless Summer has been breached, and a desperate battle appears to have taken place there; soon afterwards a potentially hostile raiding party is spotted further down the Ridge. In the ensuing rush to secure New Absalom, Naomi finds herself through the breach where she encounters a foe way beyond not only her knowledge, but beyond her imagining.

Working a drudge job in a factory is not glamorous, but it’s better than being at the Front, which is the only other option for kids like Torro. Besides, he’s got some nice black market work on the side, a bunch of kiddos to pal around with, and even a girl in town. He’s well liked and never gets into trouble. Or that’s what he thought, up until the time that he learns about the demerits added to his profile that make him front and center for the next draft. Suddenly he finds himself on the way to the Front, wherever that is. All he really knows is that once you head to the Front, you never come back.

These are only three of the Point-of-View characters in J. Patrick Black’s debut novel Ninth City Burning, but they aptly demonstrate the widely divergent stories that circle around each other and then slowly weave together into a coherent and satisfying whole. But these are only some of the anchor points in a much larger canopy, which also includes frenetic inventors, prescient administrators, mysterious mentors, kaiju-like fighting machines, and cities that … well, to say it would seem unbelievable, but under Mr. Black’s treatment, the story comes off as both expansive and personal, and fun in the strangest sort of way since its endgame is the death of our civilization via alien threat.

I enjoyed Ninth City Burning, mainly because of the wide range of characters that drew the story together and the unique settings that define them. I will admit to getting somewhat lost towards the sections where military stratagems, battle formations and furious conflicts arose, but that could be due to my somewhat squishy mentality as opposed to unclear prose (for those who are online gamers, I’m terrible at PvP, which illustrates my point). And yes, even I at times could see that the action was a bit formulaic. But even if my understanding was a bit fuzzy or predictive at times, I will say that the take on our future portrayed in Ninth City Burning was unlike any other that I’ve ever come across, and that’s also quite commendable.

Yet as I stated at the start of this review, that this novel is a take on our future is not really the point. By the time the story is in full swing, we don’t really care about what past these characters came from, rather, we are fully vested in what is happening to them, and what their own future portends.

A fairly impressive start for a young novelist. Supposedly Ninth City Burning is the first of a series. It didn’t really feel that way to me, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for what Mr. Black comes out with next.

~ Sharon Browning

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