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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Book Review: The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy

Dead LandsIf man-sized, blood-sucking albino bats freak you out, The Dead Lands might not be the best book for you.

If you can handle the squickiness and enjoy alternate histories and post-apocalyptic societies, read on!

In The Dead Lands, the action begins in the Sanctuary, formerly known as St. Louis, Missouri, approximately 150 years after a global flu pandemic and subsequent nuclear warhead detonations and reactor meltdowns destroy the world as we know it. The Sanctuary is a parched, cramped little insular world, surrounded by a massive wall that keeps all the bad out — and keeps its residents in. Water is scarce and growing scarcer. Residents of the Sanctuary are convinced that they’re it, all that’s left of humanity in this miserable world. It’s been at least 60 years since an outsider has shown up seeking entry. Meanwhile:

The wall is a constant in Simon’s life, everywhere he looks, impossible to miss. Yet it is as common as dust, as heat, as the sun’s blazing path across the sky, and it is easy to go days, weeks, without noticing it. It is of uneven height but at its tallest point reaches a hundred feet from the ground. In some places it is made from plaster and mortared stone, and in others, heaps of metal, the many-colored cars of another time, crushed and welded together into massive bricks that bleed rust when it rains.

The Sanctuary is ruled with an iron fist by the mayor, an autocratic dictator who suffers no dissent and who has instituted a policy of harsh punishment, including a brutally disgusting death penalty, for anyone who dares to criticize the regime, even by so much as a drunken comment in a bar among friends.

The sole spot of peace and possible civility in this harsh settlement is in the museum, run by Lewis Meriwether, a reclusive, odd, studious man who is both feared and respected by the residents of the Sanctuary. People flock to the museum to bask in the wonders of bygone worlds, despite the curator’s strangeness.

Life in the Sanctuary is disrupted when a rider appears from out of the dust — a girl on horseback, with all black eyes, bearing a message and begging to be heard. She is shot before she can deliver the message and is immediately captured and sentenced to death — but the message gets through all the same. She brings word of another civilization, on the Oregon coast, where there is rain and agriculture and a thriving community. The mayor wants nothing of this and tries to keep it secret, but Meriwether and a guard named Mina Clark agree to join the messenger, Gawea, and together with a few others, carry out a desperate escape from their walled city.

Do the names ring a bell? Lewis and Clark? Gawea… as in Sacagawea? The Dead Lands reimagines the Lewis & Clark expedition in this harsh, dead world, as our band of escapees flees through the barren, dry areas outside of the Sanctuary, following the dried-up bed of the Missouri River in search of water, shelter, and salvation. Along the way, they face untold horrors and dangers. Due to the high post-disaster radiation levels, all sorts of horrible mutations have taken place, so that the albino bats are but one nasty specimen that wants to eat, kill, or maim the travelers. Hazardous landscapes pose endless threats, as the oil fields continue to burn, creating micro nuclear winters, and the few signs of life they do see come with new and strange risks. And as the group travels onward, we see that animals and vegetation aren’t the only forms of life that have evolved in strange ways due to radiation. Lewis exhibits weird, almost magical telekinetic abilities, and Gawea has powers of her own.

The imagery throughout The Dead Lands is horror-novel worthy. (Did I mention the albino bats already?) It’s bleak, dark, and dismal. Very bad things happen. Nightmarish creatures arrive out of nowhere. As soon as one threat is dealt with, another appears to take its place. And as you might expect, people turn out to be the biggest threat of all. Because, of course, a utopian agrarian society in the Pacific Northwest is probably too good to be true, right? The other humans out there are vicious in their own way, and as happens so often in this type of book, those who can seize power do, and everyone else is forced into one form of servitude or another.

There are some very interesting concepts, including the reestablishment of city-states as small empires. The suffering of the people, in the Sanctuary as well as elsewhere, makes you marvel that anyone bothers to survive at all, given how horrible it all is. The people with power are awful and self-aggrandizing and unbelievably decadent, reminding me of the worst of the Roman emperors, perhaps, indulging in wasteful, steamy hot baths while the common folks quench their thirst via animal blood, sucking rocks, and worse.

Setting the story in the future, yet including characters from American history, makes everything feel very circular. Is slavery inevitable in human societies? Is the impulse for the strong to dehumanize the weak somehow hardwired into our DNA? In The Dead Lands, it certainly seems that way. Does a totalitarian society encourage those with sadistic tendencies to rise to power? If the Sheriff of the Sanctuary is any indication, that would be a yes. Society itself has reverted to a bygone time, thanks to the end of technology and industry:

Apothecaries, tinkers, blacksmiths, seers. Old words, old ways. So much about the world has reverted, so that it is not so much the future people once imagined, but a history that already happened, this time like a time long ago.

The descriptions of the ravaged world are horrible yet evocative:

The remains of the St. Louis Arch, collapsed in the middle, appear like a ragged set of mandibles rising out of the earth.

Even a passionate interlude between two illicit lovers is presented as disturbing… and pretty gross:

What they are doing is kissing, though it looks much like eating. Their mouths opening and closing hungrily, their teeth biting down on lips, cheeks. Then they pull apart, their faces are a splotchy red and he is bleeding from the corner of his mouth.

The writing in The Dead Lands is wildly disturbing and imaginative. While the explorers push forward, even when it seems pointless and impossible, it’s not from a true sense of hope, but rather because there simply is no alternative but to keep going.

Not so long ago Lewis believed in the end of the rainbow. A shire. An emerald city. Elysian fields. What his childhood storybooks promised. He believed, back when they first set out from the Sanctuary, that something arcadian awaited them. Not anymore. Now now. Not when he sees the bone-riddled ruins of Bozeman. It is not only the landscape that disappoints. It is humankind. Inside and outside the wall, humans remain the same, capable of wonderful things, yes, but more often excelling in ruin.

The ending felt a little abrupt and puzzling to me, and didn’t quite pull together all of the many story threads in this big, complicated book. Ultimately, I’m not sure what it all meant, and the open-ended nature of the ending makes me wonder if a sequel is in the works.

Do I recommend The Dead Lands? Yes, but only for those with a strong stomach and a willingness to read a book that is terribly unpleasant and often horrific. It’s disturbing and sometimes icky, and I’d be scared to death to read this on a camping trip with only a campfire to ward off all the nightmares waiting in the dark. The world of The Dead Lands is as awful as the title promises, so don’t expect moments of grace or redemption along the way. Most of all, don’t get too attached to any of the characters. Bad things happen. To lots of people.

Have I scared you away from this book yet? I’m glad I read it, really, I am! But it’s heavy and morbid, and you should know that before you start. As for me, I think I’ll track down a copy of the author’s previous novel, Red Moon, which also sounds quite disturbing. (I think I’d better read some books about kitties and unicorns first.)

Side note: I did find some of the similarities to Station Eleven a bit odd — flu pandemic, nuclear meltdowns, scavenging abandoned houses for supplies, even a TV set up like a diorama. I suppose it’s not too far-fetched — seen one crumbling civilization, seen ’em all — but a few of these elements really jumped out at me, having read Station Eleven fairly recently. Just saying.

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The details:

Title: The Dead Lands
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: May 14, 2015
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Adult fiction/post-apocalyptic/horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley