Book Review: The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

Title: The Ninth Metal (The Comet Cycle, #1)
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

IT BEGAN WITH A COMET…

At first, people gazed in wonder at the radiant tear in the sky. A year later, the celestial marvel became a planetary crisis when Earth spun through the comet’s debris field and the sky rained fire.

The town of Northfall, Minnesota will never be the same. Meteors cratered hardwood forests and annihilated homes, and among the wreckage a new metal was discovered. This “omnimetal” has properties that make it world-changing as an energy source…and a weapon.

John Frontier—the troubled scion of an iron-ore dynasty in Northfall—returns for his sister’s wedding to find his family embroiled in a cutthroat war to control mineral rights and mining operations. His father rightly suspects foreign leaders and competing corporations of sabotage, but the greatest threat to his legacy might be the U.S. government. Physicist Victoria Lennon was recruited by the Department of Defense to research omnimetal, but she finds herself trapped in a laboratory of nightmares. And across town, a rookie cop is investigating a murder that puts her own life in the cross-hairs. She will have to compromise her moral code to bring justice to this now lawless community.

In this gut-punch of a novel, the first in his Comet Cycle, Ben Percy lays bare how a modern-day gold rush has turned the middle of nowhere into the center of everything, and how one family—the Frontiers—hopes to control it all.

In The Ninth Metal, the first book in the new trilogy The Comet Cycle by Benjamin Percy, what starts as a beautiful phenomenon turns into a planet-changing event. As the Cain Comet passes by Earth, people everywhere gaze at this once-in-a-lifetime sight. But a year later, the Earth’s orbit takes it through the debris field trailing the comet, and suddenly, life on Earth is permanently changed.

The book only hints at the global implications and the variety of natural disasters that occur in the wake of this event. Instead, The Ninth Metal restricts its focus to the town of Northfall, Minnesota — a dying mining town whose riches have been dwindling, until the debris strike bombards the area with meteors containing a previously unknown element. Known as omnimetal, this ninth metal has properties that science can barely begin to understand.

But one thing is clear. Omnimetal has huge energy-storage and generating abilities, and suddenly, Northfall is once again a boomtown. As the book opens, it’s been five years since the arrival of omnimetal. The population of Northfall has exploded, and a power grab is underway between two massively wealthy energy companies, each of which wants to control the resources completely.

Frontier is the locally based company, run by the powerful Frontier family, but they’re threatened by the encroachment of Black Dog Energy, a Texas oil firm that’s willing to use any means necessary to control the world’s supply of omnimetal.

Meanwhile, a group of cult-like worshippers smoke and snort ground-up omnimetal, living in a sort of trance with eyes glowing blue, celebrating the omnimetal’s powers and becoming wraithlike addicts with a religious devotion. And in a facility so secret that it’s not on any map, a Department of Defense research facility carries out inhumane experiments in the name of science and national security, trapping two unwilling participants in a never-ending, escalating series of tests and trials.

The Ninth Metal is small in scope, in that it’s centered completely on the area in and around Northfall. Yet we also get hints that the entire world has been changed in incomprehensible ways, as characters hear or repeat stories about weird things happening around the globe.

At times, the corporate warfare between Frontier and Black Dog reads like something out of Dallas, with competing conglomerates trying to gobble up the resources (and the power and the money) all for themselves, relying on threats, extortion, violence, and outright murder to get what they want.

But also, The Ninth Metal is top-notch speculative fiction, taking small town USA and injecting it with powerful forces beyond human comprehension, turning daily life on its head and bringing unknowable powers into what was once a quiet, dull, ordinary little place.

The characters are varied and interesting, from the members of the Frontier family to the local rookie cop to the young boy who just wants his freedom. The plot is compact and fast-paced, and between heists and kidnappings and bombings and the weird uses of omnimetal, there’s never a dull moment.

And hey — the evil science labs and secret experiments totally gave me a Stranger Things vibe!

I love that the trilogy of The Comet Cycle will be published on such a tight schedule, with the next two books already scheduled for publication in 2022.

From what I understand, the 2nd book (and presumably the 3rd as well?) tells a different story about the comet’s affect on Earth, focusing on different characters, a different setting, and a new set of potentially deadly circumstances. I am so there for it! I absolutely want to continue these books, and will be waiting eagerly for #2, The Unfamiliar Garden.

Synopsis for The Unfamiliar Garden:

From award-winning author Benjamin Percy comes the second novel in his grippingly original sci-fi series, The Comet Cycle, in which a passing comet has caused irreversible change to the growth of fungi, spawning a dangerous, invasive species in the Pacific Northwest that threatens to control the lives of humans and animals alike.

It began with a comet. They called it Cain, a wandering star that passed by Earth, illuminating the night with a swampy green light and twinning the sky by day with two suns. A year later, Earth spun through the debris field the comet left behind. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of meteors plummeted into the atmosphere, destroying swaths of electrical grids, leaving shores of beaches filled with deceased sea life, and setting acres of land ablaze. It was then, they say, that the sky fell. It was then that Jack lost Mia.

Five years after the disappearance of his daughter, Jack has fallen. Once an accomplished professor of botany, he’s now a shell of a man who has all but withdrawn from life. Nora, his ex-wife, has thrown herself into her investigative work. Separately, they have each bandaged over the hole Mia left behind.

Just as Jack is uncovering a new form of deadly parasitic fungus in his lab, Nora is assigned to investigate the cases of ritualistic murders dotting Seattle. The rituals consist of etchings—crosshatches are carved into bodies and eyes are scooped out of their sockets. The attackers appear to be possessed.

It only takes a moment—for a sickness to infect, for a person to be killed, for a child to be lost. When Nora enlists Jack to identify the cause of this string of vicious deaths, Jack is quick to help. Together, they fight to keep their moments—the unexpected laughter, the extraordinary discoveries, the chance that Mia could come back home—but they find that what they’re up against defies all logic, and what they have to do to save the world will change every life forever.

Sounds amazing, right?

Benjamin Percy is the author of one of the most unique (and very icky) horror/alternate history books I’ve read, The Dead Lands. If you haven’t read it yet, give it a try! This is an author who knows how to tell a story, create fascinating characters, and scare the heck out of his readers.

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