Fiction Reviews

The Sky Vault

(2023) Benjamin Percy, Hodderscape, £18.99, trdpbk, ix + 303pp, ISBN 978-1-473-69016-5


This is the third book in the author’s ‘Comet Cycle’ but it includes a helpful prologue about what happened when the Earth passed through the debris field left by comet ‘Cain’. Spoiler alert: it was nothing good.  The Sky Vault picks up the tale well into the aftermath and features a diverse cast of characters, most of whom exhibit the kind of rugged individuality that is (stereo)typical of the location, namely Fairbanks, Alaska.

The story itself opens with Chuck Bridges, DJ (and station janitor) at 93.3, the Grizz, ‘fifth biggest FM market in north-central Alaska’, being physically restrained on a plane after seeing tentacles uncoiling from the clouds and a giant eye lit up by a lightning flash. Which Lovecraftian images set the tone for the rest of the book: somehow the comet, or rather the resultant meteor impacts, have weakened the membrane between dimensions and Something Bad is trying to get through. The central issue for all but one of the characters, then, is how to hinder the attempt. The disparate line-up includes: Theo, Chuck’s teenage son, who together with his friends Jackson and Little Head – so-called because a childhood illness left his skull abnormally small – go all Stranger Things in figuring out what’s going on before the adults do; Rolf, the local sheriff, due to retire, who’s made viscerally aware that all is not right in his borough; and Joanna, who inherited a construction business from her uncle and who is hired to build a mysterious ‘facility’ by an unforthcoming military figure. The odd one out is Sophie, a highly-trained and super-fit member of the incredibly well-resourced ‘Collectors’, who is less interested in saving the world than getting her hands on the chunk of ultra-precious ‘omnimetal’ that she suspects lies behind the mysterious happenings.

Interleaved between the separate chapters detailing the varied attempts to first, comprehend, and then cope with all the weirdness are selections from the logbook of one George C. Warnock. It turns out he was a WWII scientist working on a top-secret counterpart to the Manhattan Project, except instead of being located on a desert mesa, it was tucked away in the Alaskan woods – more or less next door, in fact, to where Joanna has been instructed to start the new construction. Although George’s notes and reflections appear earlier in the narrative, the logbook is actually discovered by Joanna and one of her construction workers quite late on, when they are drawn to explore the ruins of the earlier site. It's at that point that the connection between that wartime project and the current weirdness starts to become apparent.

The science behind it all is more than just ‘slippery’, as the author says in his acknowledgments (as are some of the historical side-remarks), and I can’t help but think there’s a dissertation to be written on how spinning things – whether atoms or complicated orrery-type mechanisms – are used as a device time and time again (ha ha) to turn back time, or create a rift in the space-time continuum, or, in this case, open a portal between different realities. Nevertheless, and despite the occasional ‘Say what now?!’ moment, what kept me turning the pages was the skilful interweaving of the different threads, together with the sympathetic treatment of Chuck, Theo, Joanna et al. Even if, at times, this borders on the implausibly syrupy, it works well as a balance to all the H.P-type horrors lurching out of the mist. Coupled with an acutely sketched sense of place, with its unforgiving terrain and harsh weather, the combination makes for an engaging read, despite the twist at the end, which seems de rigueur these days but which I felt was perhaps unnecessary. Still, I can easily see this being picked up by one of the streaming services and I have to say, I’d definitely watch it!

Steven French


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