(2021) Benjamin Percy, Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, hrdbk, ix + 291pp, ISBN 978-1-473-69007-3
It begins with a comet and the action is pretty much nonstop from there on, in this fast-paced novel by Benjamin Percy. The premise is that while the earth breathes a sigh of relief when a huge comet doesn’t crash into it, the world hadn’t allowed for the subsequent meteor shower created by the falling debris. It’s a big, big meteor shower and it has massive consequences – which are life-changing, but not in terms of an extinction event; more in terms of revealing the greed, corruption and power games created by the discovery of precious metals from outer space.
The Ninth Metal reads likes Stephen King, mixed with Lee Child with a dash of Marvel’s ‘Jennifer Jones’. I couldn’t put it down, it felt like being in the cinema or binge watching a box set. Percy has King’s ability to instantly create realistic, three-dimensional characters and then use their points of view to run the narrative. The action scenes are intense, and the descriptive passages are well observed – it’s no surprise to learn that Percy writes comics for Marvel and DC.
The narrative jumps around in time, revealing the characters’ worlds before, during and after the meteor shower. The precious metal left by the shower (arriving in dramatic, crater inducing fashion) is named ‘Omnimetal’. It offers humankind huge possibilities, but it has to be mined from the earth. A kind of modern day mining gold rush ensues, with disputes over land and ownership. To add to the dystopian plot, ‘Omnimetal’ can also be used as a drug, which is consumed in great quantities by ‘metal-eaters’, whose bright blue eyes reveal their addiction.
The protagonist – John Frontier – returns to his hometown of Northfall, Minnesota after a long absence, only to be taken aback to see how the town has changed since the discovery of Omnimetal deposits. His story is one of self-discovery, family secrets, loyalty, and loss. His family basically run the town, except now, with the arrival of Omnimetal, they have competition: the kind of competition that will kill for power and profit.
Gripping as the narrative may be, there are a few too many loose ends and underexplored concepts that get in the way. For example, the suggestion of an alien connection with Omnimetal isn’t fully developed – where did the comet come from? Why and how is this new metal so powerful? How and why does it give humans special powers? The Ninth Metal is apparently the first of a cycle of novels from Percy that is set in a shared universe. It feels like the author has deliberately not developed certain ideas with this cycle in mind. I found this frustrating, and I felt a bit cheated out of knowing more.
That said, if The Ninth Metal is an indication of the quality of things to come, I’ll definitely be reading the next in the series The Unfamiliar Garden. Highly recommended.
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