‘The Ninth Metal’ by Benjamin Percy

I picked up ‘The Ninth Metal’, a Science Fiction book that looks at what happens when the Earth moves the path of debris from a comet and is hit by large numbers of meteors made of a ninth inert metal with some game-changing attributes, because it was recommended by Stephen King.

I can see now why he might have done that. Like his own work, it’s original but still linked to a world we all understand. It follows multiple characters, is packed with plot twists and compelling ‘what if?’ possibilities and it kept me wanting to turn the pages.

What I liked most about it was that Benjamin Percy took me on a perfectly choreographed wild ride that constantly surprised me. The man is a magician, a master of misdirection.

The story starts with two shootings on the night when meteor after meteor ripped through the sky and tore into the land of a rural area. You know the meteor strikes, the shootings and the survivors are important but you don’t know why. Then Percy, magician that he is, makes you forget all of them for now and gets you to concentrate on a scene that pulls you in with its simplicity and a familiarity that lets you think you know where this book is going. That maybe you’ve already seen the movie.

Percy focuses on a lone soldier with medals on a chest, coming home on a train. He is the prodigal eldest son, estranged from his powerful family, especially his almost legendary father, returning to the small town his family has dominated for generations, to attend his sister’s wedding.

He’s a quiet man in a loud environment. To those who look closely, his stillness suggests control rather than passivity. Then you learn that the small town is now a boomtown for mining the ninth metal and his noisy fellow passengers are all on their way to make their fortune. When you discover that his family’s dominance over the town is being challenged by a vulgar, violent, arrogant carpetbagger from Texas, you think you know where this is going.

But you don’t and you won’t. You’ll be fooled and misdirected and every time the plot shifts everything will be different but it will always make more sense. And where you end up and who you’re with when you get there, well that’s nothing like the book you thought you were in when you first saw that soldier riding the train home.

This is a Science Fiction thriller and there’s a lot in it about what the ninth metal does and how it does it and how it will transform energy, transport and weaponry but I thought much of the power of the story came from how it drew on four very recognisable American traits.

First, there is the American cultural foundation stone that holds as a self-evident truth that in a gold rush/ oil rush / land rush, all laws are set aside while the strong fight and kill to get rich. This isn’t a country where the State would declare that it owned all the ninth metal deposits and would license its exploitation for the benefit of all citizens. This is a country where you head out to grab what you can while you can and the devil take the hindmost. This is the Yukon. This is the robber barons building railways and shooting at and sabotaging the opposition. This is the real American Dream.

The second is the way cults flourish in America as the lost and the discarded seek purpose and meaning and rebirth through something larger than themselves. Here we get the Metal Eaters, addicted to consuming ninth metal dust that changes their consciousness in a way that they explain only by saying ‘Metal is’.

Then there is the acceptance as natural that one family in a region can, over generations, if they are ruthless enough, acquire enough wealth and power to become almost unassailable and can then present themselves as the local good guys fighting off the out-of-State carpetbaggers. They are seen as part of the answer, not the cause of the problem.

Finally there is the deeply ingrained belief that the Federal government will countenance torture, extreme rendition and well-funded black ops if they think the stakes are high enough or perhaps just if they think that they can get away with it.

Percy weaves these threads into new patterns, constantly making the reader reassess what they thought they knew.

I liked the tone of ‘The Ninth Metal’. It read like the text version of the very best graphic novels: packed with vivid images, rapid violence and dramatic ‘ah ha’ moments of revelation.

i recommend abandoning moderation when you consume this book. It’s for gulping, not sipping. If you can, plan time for the binge read that will inevitably follow once you start the book. Take breaks if the tension gets to you or when you need to re-orient yourself after one of the ‘I didn’t see that coming’ moments when the plot twists and tilts beneath you like a fairground ride.

This is the first book in the series but its also a full novel in its own right. There were no cliff-hanger endings here but it was also clear that the story is far from over. Everything changed the night the meteors screamed through the sky and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.

I listened to the audiobook version of ‘The Ninth Metal’ which I thought was well done. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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