Ninth Metal, by Benjamin Percy
Ninth Metal, the newly released fifth novel from Benjamin Percy, is much like the author himself – successful at encompassing many disparate elements while still remaining, at its heart, very personal and genuine. The work is speculative fiction, yes, but also contains strong elements of science fiction, thriller, suspense, horror, even a comic book ethic, without losing the human element of very real people struggling to find purchase in a dramatically changing world.
Northfall, Minnesota used to be a prosperous small town in the state’s northern iron range, but the waning mining industry has left the entire area depressed and emptying – that is, until the debris field of a passing comet rains down, leaving behind incredibly rich deposits of what has become known as “omnimetal”. From the onset, this new material proves to be the source of incredible energy, and speculation over its full potential is running rampant. All of a sudden, sleepy little Northfall is at the center of a modern day goldrush, overrun by strangers – and locals – awash with feverish hopes, ruthless ambition and unbridled greed for both profit and power.
That information in and of itself would be enough for a good, if predictable, book. But in Ben Percy’s hands, what really anchors this novel – and elevates it – are the people who populate it.
Every character is Ninth Metal is flawed in some way; even the rookie cop who thinks of herself not as a police officer but as a peacekeeper despite the debauchery she is constantly encountering, who fails at the first case she sets for herself outside the department’s “good old boy” protocols in order to prove she’s not just a token, is annoyingly blindered by her own pollyannaish outlook. There is the golden son of the town’s most prosperous and influential family, who turned wild child in high school then disappeared when the meteors fell, only to return for his sister’s wedding five years later, dressed in full uniform, grounded and purporting to have straightened out his life, intending to only stay for a few days. There is the good girl that he left behind, who moved on and got married, had a son, and works at the Lumberjack Steakhouse to make ends meet, who knows how to hide the bruises and the heartache – and knows when enough’s enough. Then there is the young boy in an isolated room deep in a clandestine Defense Department facility just outside of town, who might hold the most devastating secret of all…
And yet, for all their flaws, they also have qualities to redeem them; an unerring moral compass, a desire for self-reliance, a grim determination, sullen endurance, even a single-minded purpose and dedication to something larger than themselves, for better or worse.
What is amazing about all these characters – and so many more, I could have kept going – is how real they are. You could find them in any small town in any part of the country. Those of us who grew up in small towns know these people, have lived with these people; heck, ARE these people. The difference is that these people find themselves in the epicenter of extraordinary events, holding on for dear life or trying to navigate the turbulent waters.
As the action ratchets up and consequences explode, as the effects of the comet and its detritus intensify, we, too, get caught up in the maelstrom and hang onto these characters with our fingernails, hoping for the best but expecting the worst, because that’s how life is. We see the train wreck coming but we can’t look away; regardless of how fantastical the action gets, we’re vested, because despite everything, we care.
It’s simply a marvelous stretch of storytelling, through and through. Not to be missed. Not even. And oh, my gosh, it’s just the beginning.