Quick Read: Ninth City Burning


(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.

Some 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.





10 thoughts on “Quick Read: Ninth City Burning

  1. Andrea Harris

    Why the Roman/Greek thing? Well, I can think of a current modern nation that was started as partly an attempt to build a “New Roman Republic” and I might actually live in that nation. But the usage is, as you point out, usually shallow–Legions, calling your characters and their groups by Latin or Latin-ish names, and so on. An actual scifi future Roman-style civilization would be a lot more interesting than just big scifi buildings named “Basilica” and so on.

  2. Elisabeth

    “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?”
    The Hunger Games did it, so a lot of authors copied it. However, Star Trek did it much earlier, and in an even sillier fashion, having an alien civilization be inspired by the ancient Romans.

    “Does this sort of thing bother anyone else as much as it bothers me?”
    I don’t really mind made-up words in a futuristic setting, so long as they’re not too silly (like vid-screens). However, made-up profanity bugs me, like saying “shuck” instead of “fuck” (like in The Maze Runner). “Fuck” has been around for a long time, and I doubt it’s going to die out anytime soon. If you can’t write swear words, then just say something like, “he swore”.

    1. Signatus

      In Battlestar Galactica they changed “fuck” for “frack”, and they even used it to talk about the mating act. It bothered me very much.

  3. Signatus

    ” a girl gives a little squeal of panic”

    God fucking damnit!

    Sorry if I sound annoying about this but I’m kind of sick of females being used to portray fear, because manly men don’t cry or scream in panic. All those stampedes that killed more people being trampled than the cause of the stampede itself… those were women, of course. Men remained cool and calm while they suffocated to death in a fire or played a Rambo while being shot by narcoterrorists.

    Authors, get your heads out of your phalocentric asses. You are as capable of feeling fear and manifesting it as women are. It’s a PRIMARY EMOTION, it’s so primary it’s present in every single frigging living being because it means SURVIVAL.

    For your information, no, we don’t always squeal in fear. Actually my usual reaction to strong fear is flight. You give me a scare, I’ll probably turn heels and be meters from you before you know it, which is also an instinctive reaction. I’m not going to say I’m the bravest soul out there because I’m not, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, but you’ll rarely hear me squeal at all.

    People have all sorts of ways to deal with fear, be it they instinctive reaction of fight or flight, remaining cool, freezing, squealing and becoming a mopping mess (something only women do in books), retroactively feeding their fear, hiding, you name it. I’m sick of seeing only women manifesting fear while men remain all cool and emotionless.

    “gives the girl’s hand a reassuring squeeze”

    Yes, because pathetic inferior beings like frightened does have to be reassured by the superior man. Fuck you!

    If I’d had to wait for a man to help me get through a rough emotional patch, I’d still be waiting. Believe it or not, we’re damn capable of managing situations ourselves, thank you very much.


    I’m guessing they just think it’s cool, but don’t have the patience to do research on the over 1000 years of roman history to actually write about Rome itself. I find Rome really cool, to be honest, but I never had the urge to copy parts of roman history into any of the books I’ve written.

  4. Elspeth Grey

    I was trying to figure out why I knew this title, and I realized it was because I’d read a review that criticized, among other things, its obsession with world and jargon building.


    Personally, making up a bunch of terms doesn’t necessarily bother me – I can go along with a lot of that if writing surrounding it is solid and/or the terms are for things specific to this world (or that developed differently in this world). I DO have a problem with it when the term is then overexplained – the “fizz” bit you quoted is a prime, cringe-inducing example of that. Basically, I like it when it lets me feel like I’m soaking in this alternate world. Not when it comes across as the author telling me about every little minor idea they came up with, or the author making up words because they feel like they have to in sf/f.

  5. Anton

    Hmm, reminds me of two things from my own time in school.
    1. The lessons we had in history about a guy named Mussolini who thought to start something similar to the roman empire in the modern era. I am certain you know what followed.
    2. The time I spent reading Donald Duck comics and being confused with references to things like military school and being able to buy war material in stores.

  6. reveen

    The only time I’ve seen someone do the Neo-Rome shit and it didn’t come off as a blatant attempt to be cool was with Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas. The leader of which has a thought out justification why embracing a neo-proto-fascist ideology is the best course for civilization, and the game goes out of it’s way to show the fucked up a neo-rome could be through brutal slavery, a need for unending conquest, and oppressive all encompassing warrior culture, and the treatment of women as chattel.

    Most of the rest of the time it’s like the writer just watched gladiator a bunch and thought that shit was rad.

    Speaking of, have you read or are interested in trying the Codex Alera books?

    1. Signatus

      OMG. I tried the first one, and that’s about as far as I got through the whole serie. What a trainwreck of a book. For someone who actually likes Dresden Files, I thought Furies of Calderon was an emotionless snoozefest.

  7. zephyrean

    > why, for the love of god why, do so many YA sci-fi novels do the whole future Roman Empire thing?
    *rushes to comments* rhetor is Greek tho–
    > (And yes, I’m aware that rhetor is Greek
    gr8 b8 m8 i r8 8/8

    > 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?

    Not language and culture. They’re probably speaking English (this makes sense) and the culture is close to modern American (because it’s a YA book and/or the author lacks imagination). Note the names. Only the terms are Greek/Latin.
    Why? Cultural neutrality of sorts and a reasonable extrapolation. Today, we attach fancy Greek and Latin names to scientific disciplines and devices. It makes sense that during the push for globalization, terms would be Classicized. Greek is also a somewhat less problematic choice than Latin, politically: less EMPIRE!!!1!, plus a courtesy nod to Russia.

    (Now, as a Russian, I don’t expect Russia to warrant a courtesy nod or to even exist in the late 21st century, but it’s a reasonable assumption for a low-effort US book.)

    > Am I being too mean-spirited here? Does this sort of thing bother anyone else as much as it bothers me?
    Yes and yes. These names are dumb, but so are the cutesy names of RL products and real-life slang. If a fictional brand makes me want to scratch out my eyeballs as much as real brands do, I applaud the author (bonus: it also keeps my hands busy away from eyeballs).
    Vid-screens are a separate category – it’s a deliberately stupid name for something that already has a normal name (no one says “communicator” when referring to their phone). I’m not going to defend *that*, it’s bad writing.


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