Book Review: The Ninth Metal, by Benjamin Percy

This week, I’m actually reviewing a new book! Wonders never cease. Superheroics and Western staples combine in Benjamin’s Percy’s The Ninth Metal, the opening salvo in his Comet Cycle. But what did I make of it? Read on to find out!

The mining town of Northfall, Minnesota was down on its luck, until a questionable gift from the heavens was bestowed upon it. Breaking off from the comet Cain, chunks of a mysterious new metal with incredible properties – omnimetal – have turned Northfall into a veritable boom town. But avaricious eyes have their sights set on the mining rights for this new element, with tensions between local outfit Frontier Metals and outsiders Black Dog Energy simmering. Meanwhile, a young boy granted amazing powers on the night of the meteor shower has become a figure of particular interest for his potential military applications, whilst a prodigal son returning home threatens to upset the uneasy balance of the rapidly expanding town.

Said prodigal son is Johnny Frontier, son of local mining supremo Ragnar Frontier. Back in town for his sister Talia’s wedding, Johnny – or John as he now likes to be known – struggles to put his past as a hellraiser behind him. He also has to face up to Jenna, the girlfriend he left behind five years ago, who seems strangely forgiving and actually doesn’t give him much of a hard time at all. Jenna is somewhat all over the place in her characterisation though, getting emotional over the groceries one minute and idly wondering if John has just murdered the guys over the road who were playing their country music too loud and hugging herself with happiness at his devotion to her. There’s liking bad boys, and then there’s full on Bonnie and Clyde syndrome.

Many of the other characters come across as remarkably slow-witted and one dimensional, their inability to foresee what should be the inevitable consequences of their actions or put two and two together quite irritating. Of course, the consequences might just never catch up to them at all – at one point, Talia goes full Grand Theft Auto, blowing up rival trucks and their occupants with a rocket launcher, apparently facing no penalties from the law for her actions despite everyone knowing it was her. Perhaps things would have been helped by focussing on a smaller group, or at the very least not giving all of them quite so much to do in a sub-300 page novel. Romances, internecine corporate warfare, sibling rivalries, superpowers, flashbacks, murder mysteries and more besides – there’s a lot going on, the crowded narrative threads akin to competing plants choking each other off.

There’s no real reason why all of these plotlines and tangents can’t be here, but it needed a much longer book to fit them all in and do them proper justice. Candy-loving rookie cop Stacie’s chapters, by way of example, do little more than pad things out, and have no impact on the rest of the narrative; both her and her investigation could have been excised completely with almost no impact. It could be the case that the aim is to pick this thread back up in subsequent books, but when the “investigation” is as plodding and lacking in meaningful deduction as it is, it’s difficult to see why anyone would be particularly invested in seeing that happen. The overdue plotline pruning of the final third feels very much like a compromise – even though it results in some overdue and quite good action, everything feels rushed. It’s scant reward, and overall it’s rather choppy and unsatisfying, with threads not so much wrapped up as hurriedly tied off.

The Ninth Metal begins well with a solid premise, but it quickly becomes bogged down in its overabundant and insufficiently woven plotlines. Most frustratingly of all, it fails to mine its most promising idea – the titular ninth metal itself.

The Ninth Metal is published by Hodder & Stoughton, and is out in paperback today.

Currently reading: The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez
Currently listening: Strength, Unto Others

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