Ninth City Burning
by J. Patrick Black.
The future of Earth is threatened when an alien race suddenly appears in our skies, wielding a power we have no idea how to combat. Cities disappear, and it looks like the planet will be overrun, when humanity discovers it can wield this new power, too. Or at least, some humans can. Enough to fight back. This sparks a centuries-long war spanning planets and realms. Things are much the same year after year, with each side gaining and losing ground again and again. Then the tactics of the alien force change, ever so slightly. It’s enough to shift the balance. Earth’s defense is suddenly a much more desperate situation, and the newest batch of recruits gets dropped right into the middle. No pressure, it’s just the fate of the world in their hands.
The narration jumps between quite a few characters, though each is handily noted at the beginning of their respective chapters, so you always know who the story is focusing on. All of them are young, ranging from about 12 to 20-ish (this is YA, after all). There’s a strategist, an engineer, an elite fighter, a grunt, and a few who can wield the new power. Their stories all overlap and intertwine, and they all have their own role to play in the larger picture. You get a good balance of personalities and perspectives. My personal favorite was Kizabel, with Rae a close second. Both are clever, determined women who don’t take crap from anyone. I didn’t find Jax or Naomi as compelling, but they were also the youngest of the group, so perhaps they purposely weren’t as developed as characters? But even in their chapters, things didn’t veer too juvenile, which I always appreciate in YA.
This book is also another example of the kind of sci-fi that toes the line of fantasy. The power the aliens wield (called thelemity) is basically magic. The author tries to make it act like a science, with a limited range and tech gadgets that use it and such. But the people who can wield it have to go through an awakening, and wield a personal mindscape, and basically just make things happen through sheer will. So, magic. Overall, though, the story is definitely more sci-fi, with snarky AI’s, fighting robot suits, rifts to other worlds, space battles, and more. If you go into this expecting a sci-fi adventure story, you won’t be disappointed.
In some parts it does feel a little like we’re one of the recruits, just dropped in the middle of things. This is particularly true of Kizabel and her two friends; I felt like we didn’t really get enough backstory on those relationships to make later events as impactful as I think they were meant to be. And while I liked Torro as a character, I don’t feel like he was completely necessary for the larger story arc. I liked his sections, but they didn’t carry as much weight as the others. I would also have liked a little more detail about how the gadgets (and particularly Ninth City’s final defensive move) worked. If you’re going to treat magic like science, it needs to be explained a bit more.
This just came out at the beginning of this month. It’s little unclear whether this is a standalone or intended to be part of series- it could be either, with how the story left off. Regardless, this author’s debut is a fun read and well worth checking out.