Fiction Reviews

The Unfamiliar Garden

(2022) Benjamin Percy, Hodder, £14.99, trdpbk, 208pp, ISBN 978-1-473-69013-4


The second volume in Percy’s 'Comet Cycle', following The Ninth Metal (2021), again taking its disaster story cue from damage done to the Earth by the debris field from the tail of a passing comet.

This is not a direct sequel to the first book, which centred on chaos relating to a new, valuable alien metal that is more precious than gold. Here, different US regions are hit by changes in flora and fauna, especially fungi such as mushrooms. The novels can be read completely independently of one another. Whether book three in the series will blend elements from both or tell a fresh tale of its own remains to be seen.

Not surprisingly, the central character is an expert on fungi, Professor Jack Abernathy, who’s young daughter, Mia, vanishes on the night the comet appears, causing the Professor’s marriage to Nora to fall apart, and a long struggle to control; his depression and keep his job. Most of the action takes place five years after the appearance of the comet as its catastrophic effects begin to manifest on Earth.

Nora, a detective, has similar anxieties and problems of her own with a series of psychotic attacks occurring on her Seattle patch, showing remarkable similarities to murders by a seriel killer she helped catch years before, though he is known to be descending into mental incapacity in a secure psychiatric unit.

There is little doubt that Fungi spores are on the rampage, with people literally spitting seeds and growing tendrils. One sinister government backed scientific study group appears to be deliberately infecting human test subjects to study the crisis.

Percy avoids the obvious plot drives such as having giant Triffids (as seen in John Wyndham’s 1951 classic The Day of the Triffids) eating people and demolishing cities. There are no grand guignol James Herbert style graphically described and choreographed deaths of random citizens padding out the narrative. Percy keeps the focus very much on the Abernathy family, as Jack & Nora’s paths cross with hope that they might learn what happened to their daughter, if Jack’s contamination by the plant spores can be overcome.

The story transcends the simple premise of nature turning on humanity as the fungi are seen as not following a single hive-mind agenda. The humans are torn between fighting against a truly dominant species (the sheer volume of fungi on Earth gives them a huge advantage), or being sure to be infected by the right kind of spores.

Percy’s knowledge and research on fungi proves as infectious as the plants in the novel. In the pre-disappearance prologue Jack cheerfully tells Mia that while she might think the Blue Whale is the biggest living organism on Earth there is the Armillaria solidipe, a single Oregon ‘Honey fungus’, which covers three and a half miles of forest floor. (It’s real, I looked it up). I have ended up adding a few text books on fungi to my books to buy and read list from discovering such startling nuggets of factual information here.

The characterisation and chemistry of the family at the heart of the story is very well handled and the reader is sure to really get emotionally involved in their situation. Lesser characters seem under-developed and get less time to shine, but what there is is very tense, entertaining and unexpectedly educational too.

Arthur Chappell


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