Today, we are giving the floor over to Charles Payseur, a member of our Smuggler Army with his regular column X Marks the Story to review Serial Box Publishing’s series Ninth Step Station by Malka Older, Fran Wilde, Curtis C. Chen, and J Koyanagi
Genre: Crime / Science Fiction
Publisher: Serial Box Publishing
Publication date: January 2019 – First Season
Format: Ebook/Serial Ebook (Earc provided for review)
Years of disaster and conflict have left Tokyo split between great powers. In the city of drone-enforced borders, bodymod black markets, and desperate resistance movements, US peacekeeper Emma Higashi is assigned to partner with Tokyo Metropolitan Police Detective Miyako Koreda. Together, they must race to solve a series of murders that test their relationship and threaten to overturn the balance of global power. And amid the chaos, they each need to decide what they are willing to do for peace.
I think it’s safe to say that I’m a fan of short SFF. So when a venue comes along that seems to ask “what if we made reading more like television?” I admit that I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, where I want to know why I’d want television-esque fiction when… well… I could just watch television. But readers, pass me the ketchup, because it’s time for me to eat my hat. Serial Box is a service that brings out serialized fiction in a format pulled from the small screen. Stories are broken up into seasons and episodes and are handled by a stable of some of the most exciting authors of SFF.
Case in point, Ninth Step Station is a near-future science fiction procedural crime drama set in a Tokyo split in half after a Chinese invasion, occupied not only by enemy forces but by allies as well, the US peacekeepers no less a foreign presence in a powder keg that could easily explode back into open war. In the middle of it all, Detective Miyako Koreda is a police officer assigned to look into a case of a missing cargo container—one that seems to mean a lot to the Americans. Enough at least that they assign one of their own, peacekeeper Emma Higashi, to work with Miyako on the case, and from there to liaison with the Tokyo Police Department.
From the start the two have a rocky relationship, having to overcome not just their cultural differences but their very different ways of approaching crime and investigations. Emma is something of an outsider, always aware of the distance between herself and the people she’s now trying to protect and serve. She must balance her loyalties to her own country with the need she sees around her for justice and security. Miyako has to deal with both the foreign interests trying to influence her city, trying to pull out its heart and leave it broken and defenseless, and the domestic tensions and hatreds pushing more and more extreme ideologies for protecting Japan. Together they face an escalating series of murders and crimes, uncovering layer upon layer of plots, subterfuge, and political maneuvering while trying to navigate their own budding partnership.
The project does truly capture the feel of a television crime drama with a mix of strong characters, unique crimes, and pulse-pounding action. The collaborating authors do a fine job of maintaining a tone and cadence throughout the season while also showing individual strengths and styles, certain episodes carrying a lighter tone or focusing a bit more on the characters’ personal lives. The many individual threads that each author introduces are picked up and threaded into an intricate larger tapestry, a plot that hits in the season finale with power and devastation.
From the thrilling and dark “The Blackout Killer” to the poignant and devastating “The Loud Politician,” the series also manages to weave sharp messages into an entertaining and fast-paced storyline. And while colonization, occupation, racism, and misogyny are all grappled with throughout the season, the largest recurring theme to me is trust. Because the central question and conflict in the partnership between Emma and Miyako is whether they can trust one another. Whether they can really depend on each other to not fall victim to the politics of the situation and instead dedicate themselves to the truth, and to justice. Both characters have stumbles, but they also help each other get back up and keep moving forward, despite the dangers and difficulties, in the hope of reaching a true and lasting peace.
For fans of procedural crime dramas, this series has a bit of everything, including some awesome sci fi tech and a compelling extended cast. Trying to guess who’s betraying who is made all the more complicated as the situation in Tokyo begins to deteriorate, and war is a constant shadow inching ever closer. If there was a complaint I had about this first season it was that the pacing was almost too fast, the partnership not allowed to really grow and develop and strengthen before getting shaken to its core. Throughout the season Emma and Miyako begin to get closer, but it’s hard to ever really call them friends. The storyline, however, often requires them to care more about each other than it seems sometimes they would. That might be the point, though, as the finale ends on a note of uncertainty and possible disaster. For me it truly is a moment that could go any direction, and certainly if there’s not a second season I am going to be crushed because I want to know what happens next!!!
Which is to say that Ninth Step Station is a roller coaster of a read, coursing through the streets of a grim future Tokyo toward an ending that might be a brighter day and bluer sky or might be a fiery death against a wall of fear, violence, and hate. It’s a series that looks unflinchingly at the worst humanity has to offer, the crimes that seem to condemn the entire species. And yet through it there is a glimmer of hope, a kindness and compassion and drive toward justice that just might be enough to redeem everything. At the moment, though, it’s a set of scales precariously balanced, where any slight breeze might tilt it into ruin. It’s a fun and thrilling project, and one that does really sell me on the idea of this kind of collaborative serial storytelling. I can’t wait to see what happens in season 2!
Rating: 7 – A wild and wonderful ride!