Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Wednesday, July 27, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Ninth City Burning

Ace: Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black

Ace: Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black Ace: Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black Ace: Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black

Ninth City Burning

by J Patrick Black

It has been 500 years since the apocalyptic Valentine's Day attack, when aliens wielding unimaginable powers descended on Earth and left mankind's cities in ruins. Humanity would have gone extinct were it not for its ability to harness a particular power, thelemity, a hitherto unknown universal force, like gravity or electromagnetism, but with properties more akin to magic than science. By using thelemity, mankind repelled the attacking Valentines, as the aliens came to be called, and fought them back through a network of dimensional portals. There the battle ground to a halt and became a centuries-long war of attrition.

What was left of humanity reorganized itself into the Principate, a series of 12 grand, thelemity-powered cities spread across the globe. These essentially military dictatorships each maintain a Legion whose members fight at the Front, many dimensions away, and protect Earth from sporadic Valentine raids. Each Principate also rules hundreds of settlements, whose residents are kept in the dark about thelemity yet are still forced to provide supplies and conscripts for the war effort. In the wilds of Earth, beyond the bounds of the settlements, roam the unincorporated peoples, barbarians and nomads separated entirely from the ongoing struggle for humanity's future.

As a lifelong resident of Ninth City, 12-year-old Jax is familiar with the wonders of thelemity. But his life has just gotten complicated. Jax returns to his classes at the School of Rhetoric having discovered he's a fontanus, a source of thelemity, with a one-in-many-millions ability that makes him an essential part of the world's survival. The first demonstration of his new status comes quickly, when Jax is called upon to power Ninth City's colossal defense guns during a Valentine raid. Should the attackers overcome the Ninth Legion and the City guns, Jax will be the only thing preventing immediate obliteration.

Out in the wilderness, Naomi, a girl Jax's age, and her older sister, Rae, seek a safe refuge for their nomadic tribe during the coming winter. Their tribe, or coda, are derided by those in settlements. But Naomi and Rae's group are more like wandering traders than the barbarous, semi-feral tribes like the Niagaras and Nworkies that threaten their well-being. Rae and the coda's other scouts look for trouble before it finds them. Naomi joins her sister on her first scouting mission, one that goes terribly wrong and casts the sisters into the wider word of thelemity and the Valentine War.

Torro is a young factory worker in Settlement 225, one of many hundreds of generic outposts belonging to the Ninth Principate. He works 16-hour shifts in a fish factory, canning supplies to send on to the "Prips" for the war effort. There is no thelemity at work here. Torro and his friends use old-fashioned technology and manual labor to keep the factories running. Yet the settlements are still expected to supply recruits alongside their other quotas, and when an extra round of drafts is ordered in S-225, Torro and his group of childhood friends are torn apart, with some sent off to join the Legion, from which past draftees have never returned.

Jax, Naomi, Rae and Torro's stories, told from their own first-person perspectives, become integral to the future of humanity, the Principate and the Valentine War. J. Patrick Black weaves them together masterfully in a novel that defies categorization as either science fiction or fantasy. Instead, Ninth City Burning is the best of both genres. Thelemity is as dazzling as magic from the best fantasy books, with rules and practical applications of high technology from the best science fiction.

Black's characters understand thelemity differently based on their life experiences, which is part of what makes his novel so compelling--each character's viewpoint is written in an utterly individual voice, with their own lexicons and attitudes. For Naomi and Rae, thelemity is like magic from the folktales they heard growing up. The sisters make excellent stand-ins for the reader, allowing for natural world-building. Torro uses the slang of an unsophisticated factory worker, and Jax, while comfortable with the "magic" all around him, is still only 12, and struggles with the burden of being fontani, responsible for the fate of his city. A handful of characters introduced later in the novel, especially Officer Aspirant Kizabel, give more depth to thelemity once its fundamental properties are introduced. Her chapters, as befitting her position as an engineer of thelemity, have footnotes like the scatterbrained scrawling of the mad (but lovable) genius she is.

All of these complex systems are layered into the story with care and never overwhelm. Beyond how thelemity operates in everyday life, its use in combat is another feat of literary ingenuity. The actual fighting is dazzling, savage, dizzying--all-around enthralling. Readers will care about these characters, and the stakes they fight for could not be higher. Ninth City Burning is a stunning work of fiction. --Tobias Mutter

Ace Books, $27, hardcover, 496p., 9781101991442, September 2016

Ace: Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black

J. Patrick Black: Explaining Magic with Science

photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Ninth City Burning is a thrilling, genre-busting debut novel from Boston-based author J. Patrick Black. While he's written other long-form fiction in the past, this is the first published novel, part of a planned series. His résumé is incredibly varied--bartender, lifeguard, small-town lawyer, costumed theme park character--and he currently builds homes. Ninth City Burning could change all that, though, with its fast pace, unique world-building and endearing characters.

You've really succeeded in mixing science fiction with fantasy. It's disorienting as hell at first, which is great. What kinds of inspiration did you draw from to build this story and this world?

There were a lot of influences from all of my favorite fantasy and science fiction stories. I really loved Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, which you could probably get a little bit of from my story. I won't say I'd given up on fantasy for a while, but I'd become less interested in it until I got into George R.R. Martin's stuff, and that was a revelation for me. It made me think there were things you could do with fantasy and stories that I hadn't contemplated before

It really started with the younger characters in my story and grew from there. I was trying to think of a way that would end up with them getting thrown into this terrible multi-reality spinning conflict. The idea of thelemity, the magical force in Ninth City Burning, was just what came up. I wanted a reason for them to need to be there, aside from just the world being terrible. I've read books like that, and they're great in their own way, but they're very grim. I can only take so much grimness in one sitting.

The idea of thelemity almost scienticizes--scientificates? I had to make up a word--magic.


How does that work?

There's an often-quoted saying from Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I was approaching it in the opposite way. Magic, if you explain or study it enough, seems like science. I wanted to take a fantastical concept and approach it from the opposite direction for people to whom it's new. I wanted to think about how people like you and me in our present society would react if they just suddenly found this force to exist. What would we do with it? My answer was, we would try to figure it out. We've had our scientific method ever since the Renaissance. I thought we would try to use that to understand what was going on. What we were presented with. It resulted in a nice kind of friction for me to have--to use science to understand something that is, at its base, not terribly scientific.

At the beginning of the novel, there are very strict social groups and environments. By the end of the novel, it's "We've got to bring everyone together behind this war effort." What were you trying to say with that?

I don't want to call it a culture of deception, but I can't think of a better word for it. You have the ruling society that's decided, for some reason, for the purposes of resource or control or whatever, that most of society has to be kept in the dark about what's actually happening. I had these younger characters who were a little bit more idealistic and thought that wasn't the way to do things. The basic idea is that when you're trying to conceal things from the majority of society, it's not going to work as well or efficiently. The war in this story is not a complex, modern war. It's all or nothing, obliteration or survival. Part of what's going on over the course of the story is the entire society being pushed to the point where they end up with the choice of either dispensing with those social artifacts or going extinct. It seems like that's the only point they would actually do it.

You've got an amazing career history--bartender, lifeguard, small time lawyer, home builder, theme park character. We've got to hear about that.

I've done all of those things without really traveling very far from home, too. The theme park character was actually one of the earlier things in my career. I was the red Power Ranger at--do you remember the Discovery Zone?

Oh, yes.

I worked at a knock-off one of those.

That is so full of win.

I was a red Power Ranger with a gigantic head. If you are trying to imagine the profession in which you are most likely to be punched in the groin, that is it. That is speaking also as a lawyer. It was a high school job. Lifeguarding was a high school job also. I started writing in college and then had the misfortune of going to law school.

What was behind that decision?

I was an English major.

So you couldn't make any money.

Yes. Reading and writing has a few broad applications, but in terms of a professional life, it's not a vocational path unless you really want to find your own niche--which a lot of people do these days, and it's really impressive. For me, it took a long time. Part of that was going to law school. That was where I developed my writer's lifestyle, which was to push all of my normal work as much as I can into one section of the day, and then write the rest of the time. As it turns out, if you're willing to wake up really early in the morning or stay up very late at night, you can balance an aspiring writing career and a legal career to some extent. I worked for a while with the DA's office in Barnstable, on Cape Cod. That was unique. That's maybe the best way to describe it.

How so?

I don't know how much you know about Cape Cod, but it's a resort area. During the winter, things get pretty bleak, so there aren't a lot of things for people to do except get arrested for drunk driving. Then, in the summertime, there would be a host of misbehaving summer kids and their disapproving parents. Then you would have the people who came from other countries to work as painters, landscapers, etc., who would show up because they got pulled over and they didn't have a license because they couldn't get one in the country. There was this whole weird spectrum of dereliction from all across the social spectrum.

What's next? Are you almost done with the second novel?

"Almost" may be stretching it a bit. I am working on the second novel. I was doing that just before we starting talking today. It seems to be moving right along. I've actually got a whole series planned out. I'm hoping I get the chance to write all of those, but I've got that novel going. I've got ideas for lots of other ones, but at this point, it's all about finding the time to get it all done. --Rob LeFebvre

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