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Review of Ninth Step Station, a Serial Box Original

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I received a free advance reader copy (ARC) of Ninth Step Station.

I enjoy shared-world writing projects. I started with the Thieves’ World series, read a fair number of the Wild Cards books, and have dipped into various other series over the years. Those projects had a shared setting and permission for each author to use, but not use up, other authors’ characters. Other works trade off chapters among authors, usually keeping the same sequence but sometimes not.

Ninth Step Station, a co-written project published by Serial Box and written by Malka Older, Fran Wilde, Jacqueline Koyanagi, and Curtis C. Chen, follows the latter pattern. Released as a serial, with one episode per week in both written and audio format, the story centers on a murder in a divided Tokyo, split between the United States and China (the “Great Powers”) in a manner similar to the division of Berlin after World War II.

I’m happy to see the serial format making a comeback. Binge watching and reading have disrupted traditional publishing as a result of readers’ changing expectations of when the next series installment will be available. Some publishers release two books at once or in close proximity, while others follow the standard one-per-year pattern. All publishers face the dreaded “series death spiral” where readers buy fewer copies of the second book in a series, which affects shelf presence, which affects sales, and so on until the series isn’t commercially viable.

The serial format is one attempt to fight against this downward spiral. In Ninth Step Station, the authors and editorial team do a fantastic job of maintaining the action and continuity throughout. It helps that all of the authors have novel-length credits and are likely familiar with their colleagues’ work. Malka Older wrote the first installment, which introduces main characters Miyako Koreda, a Japanese detective and judo expert, and U.S. Navy peacekeeper Emma Higashi.

Older manages the character and setting exposition well, providing enough details about the world of Tokyo in 2032 after the city had been ravaged by an earthquake and subsequent war. She handled the cultural differences between the American, who speaks good but accented Japanese, and the Japanese detective who spent a year in Maine during her time at university, with grace. Older worked in Japan following the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, so she has an appreciation for how Americans can go astray in Japanese culture. Unlike the myriad action movies that overdramatize these differences, her depiction of partners who are uncertain of each other but learn to get along is realistic and, frankly, refreshing.

The story starts with the murder of a man who is found without a face or an arm. His missing face prevents recognition software from identifying him; removing his arm took away his sleeve, a mobile computing and communication device. Many of Japan’s records, including fingerprints, were destroyed during the war and can’t be used in this case. The action and intrigue spreads from there, involving underground tattoo artists, multilateral intrigue, and questions of how far to go to prevent a new war.

After Older’s opening installment, Wilde, Koyanagi, and Chen continue the action. As mentioned earlier, I was very happy with how everything held together and with the elements of the work as a whole. I’ve focused on the first installment because it’s available for free in both written and audio format as a teaser for potential customers, but every author did their job well. I imagine editing this multi-author narrative was a bit tricky, but the project came together nicely.

I recommend Ninth Step Station enthusiastically. The series costs $1.59 a week for ten weeks through subscription, or $13.99 if you pay in advance for the entire run. You can find purchase information as well as links for the free written and audio previews of Ninth Step Station on the Serial Box site.

Written by curtisfrye

January 14, 2019 at 5:49 pm

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