(Note: regular posting will still be sporadic for the immediate future)
So here’s an awkward situation.
I started reading Ninth City Burning because
it has a cool title the plot sounds right up my alley, intending to give it the rare Doing In The Wizard full review treatment, but I very rapidly realized that its basic setup is uncomfortably close to an idea I’m currently kicking around right at this very moment. But at the same time, there was enough “noteworthy” about the early parts of the book (by which I mean stuff annoyed me and I have to rant about it to someone) that I wanted to cover it in some way.
Thus, a quick read.
I’m going to explain the premise up-front this time, because knowing what the book is about influenced how I reacted to several aspects of the first few pages.
It’s The Future, and humanity is in the middle of a centuries-long war with aliens who fight using space magic. The last line of defense against them are radical teens gifted with the ability to use space magic as well. Our protagonist, Jax, is one such teen.
Keep that in mind as we go forward. It’s hundreds of years into the future–think how different our world was just one century ago–and humanity has been under constant siege from advanced aliens during that entire time. Wouldn’t you assume that the world would be basically unrecognizable? Wouldn’t teetering on the brink of destruction for that long fundamentally alter human society, such that to us it would seem utterly alien?
Anywhoo, let’s get to the start of the book. Here, in its entirety, is the first paragraph:
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. I can still remember the panic, the terror that used to come over me when I heard the atmospheric-incursion siren, the signal that our city is under attack. And I know that’s how all the kids around me must be feeling this very second. But it’s different for me now. Once the first shock of the wailing siren passes, it’s true I’m afraid, too, but it isn’t the same kind of fear I used to feel. It’s more like fear of letting everyone down, and even that’s not so bad yet, though I know it’s going to get worse. But for a moment, just a moment, there was that relief because I’m totally not prepared for this quiz, which I know is crazy because what kind of person is like, Oh great, I won’t have to take a quiz because everybody is going to die.
I can’t tell whether the aim here was a quasi-stream of consciousness style where the narration is almost giving us a blow-by-blow account of every thought that goes through Jax’s head, or if the book is reaching for a conversational tone, but either way it’s manifesting on the page as LOTS AND LOTS OF UNNECESSARY WORDS.
Here’s how I would have presented this:
We’re only a few minutes into our quiz when the atmospheric incursion sirens start, and all I can think is, Oh great, I won’t have to finish this because everybody is going to die.
One sentence, still presents all the relevant information. We can intuit that something called an atmospheric incursion siren is bad, and that being relieved about it is somewhat irrational, and that this irrationality on the part of the protagonist is caused by nerves, without being explicitly told. The stuff that the sentence doesn’t get across–that Jax is afraid of letting his classmates down–is repeated at length a few pages later.
Although any way you slice it, this is kind of cliched opener. I swear I’ve encountered the “character is inappropriately relieved at not having to do a test” thing numerous times before, although no specific examples come to mind.
Jax, we learn, is a student at a vaguely Ender’s Game-esque military academy where teens are trained to fight the alien invaders, only he’s not like his classmates. He’s a “fontanus”, the meaning of which we don’t learn right away, although from the back cover we know that it means he can harness the aliens’ space magic.
By the way, I keep calling it “space magic” for a reason.
All around, there is the sound of chairs creaking from beneath desks. Near the back of the room, a girl gives a little squeal of panic: Her pencil is still scribbling away. She smacks it down like someone swatting a fly, then glances up to see if anyone’s noticed.
This girl is using an “artificed” pencil, which means it writes by itself (although I had to read this bit like four times before I actually figured that out). So yes, this is basically just magic. I would bet money that somewhere in this book’s journey from creation to publishing, someone described it as “Harry Potter meets Ender’s Game”.
We all have, including Rhetor Danyee, who takes the girl by the hand and leads her to the line of cadets forming by the door. Using an artificed pencil during any kind of test is totally against the rules, as anyone who’d even picked up the Academy Handbook would know. On a normal day, this girl would be in for some big-time trouble, but not today. Rhetor Danyee, who is usually pretty tough, gives the girl’s hand a reassuring squeeze before ushering her into line.
Is it just me, or does this military academy seem a bit too…nice? I’m struggling to come up with a single teacher from my non-military, not-training-kids-to-fight-in-an-eternal-struggle-against-extinction secondary school who ever acted as friendly as this Rhetor Danyee person is shown to be throughout these opening pages.
Remember, this is taking place after hundreds of years of constant warfare, and yet if you got rid of the self-writing pencil and changed the alarm to a fire drill, this scene could take place in any normal American high school. That could actually have been used to contrast the attitudes and values of Jax’s world with our own, but instead it just makes the setting feel flat and uninteresting.
…wait, “rhetor”? “Fontani”? That sounds a little… nah, I’m sure it’s a coincidence.
The rhetors stand out by their black legionary’s uniforms
God damn it, we’re doing this again.
Serious question time: why, for the love of god why, do so many YA sci-fi novels do the whole future Roman Empire thing? Was there a particularly prominent example that everyone else is ripping off? Is this a Thing in sci-fi as a whole that I’m not aware of?
I genuinely want someone to lay out the thought process for me. These books suggest that hundreds of years in the future, when the world is completely unrecognizable (and, often, after humans have taken to the stars and Earth is no more important than any of the dozens or hundreds of planets we’ve colonized), we will, for some reason, decide to model our culture, language and aesthetics on a civilization that’s been dead for thousands of years. But…why?
(And yes, I’m aware that rhetor is Greek so it’s technically less Future Roman Empire and more Future Ancient Athens)
Anyway, everyone scampers off to the bomb shelters, except for our boy Jax, who goes through a portal or something to sit in a big fancy chair near a fountain. We get a longer explanation of his main motivation at this point: everyone, including him, doesn’t think he’s cut out to be a fontanus, and he’s worried he’ll let everyone down and the city will be destroyed.
In other words, the book is doing that YA thing where the main character gets to be an underdog by virtue of possessing special abilities and status. Neat trick.
This is all theoretically interesting, but it’s doing absolutely nothing for me. The book has completely failed to make Jax an interesting character, or to imbue his situation with any tension at all.
I hobble around the edge of the Forum, totally out of breath, passing the buildings that make up the four sides of the plaza one by one: the Academy, the Basilica of the Legion, the Praetorium, the Hall of the Principate.
“Aliens are invading, what should we do?”
“Start naming things after ancient Rome and Greece, it will scare them off.”
No, I’m not going to shut up about this until I find a book that actually justifies it.
jocks “Officers Aspirant from the School of Philosophy” show up and start making fun of Jax– always a good idea when the city is about to be annihilated by aliens– and we get this absolute banger of a paragraph.
I notice the little silver cup each is holding, and the pair of glass bottles, both mostly full of a pale amber liquid, on the stone by their feet. “Is that Fizz?” Fizz is a drink cadets make using aquavee and flavor packets. The Handbook says it’s sometimes called Gurgle or Foamy, and lists it as a Category Four Restricted Substance.
In the future, things that aren’t named after ancient Greece or Rome will have goofy twee future-slang names.
Am I being too mean-spirited here? Does this sort of thing bother anyone else as much as it bothers me? The future-slang has been a perennial bugbear when it comes to me and sci-fi (VID-SCREENS), and seeing it here makes me want to instantly stop reading.
The girl watches them with obvious annoyance. “Nice to meet you,” she says to me. “I’m Kizabel, but my friends call me Kiz.” She glances at the boys, now leaning on one another like they’re about to fall over laughing. “None of them are here right now.”
“Aw, Kiz, we didn’t mean it,” Vinneas says, wrapping an arm playfully around her. “I’ll have you know, Jaxten, that our girl here has a vast number of remarkable talents.” Imway snorts at this; Kizabel tries to kick him, but Vinneas holds her back.
Weren’t aliens about to attack the city? Why are we watching these jackasses crack jokes?
After what feels like an eternity of Banter, Jax sort of makes friends with the asshole patrol and the city’s guns start firing. The end of the chapter is quite effective, with one of the assholes revealing that if the aliens don’t manage to land a hit on the city within twenty minutes, the attack will stop (for some reason) and checking his watch to see how much time has passed. I could have done with more of this earlier.