Litstack Recs| Arranged Marriage & The Unfamiliar Garden

The Unfamiliar Garden, by Benjamin Percy

In the near future, the Earth dodges a celestial bullet when a comet passes too close for impact but leaves in its wake a debris field that eventually pummels the planet. In some places the meteor shower seems to be merely an incredible light show, in other places it is a destructive force where its remnants have a profound effect on human society.

Back to Nature With Novelist Benjamin Percy | Kirkus Reviews
Benjamin Percy

In Ninth Metal, the first book of his Comet Cycle, Ben Percy takes us to Northern Minnesota, where the wreckage of the meteors leaves behind a strange metal, dubbed omnimetal, which harbors unprecedented energy producing properties. The effect of this sudden game changer in this diminishing part of the country manages, in the words of novelist Marlon James, to “blow open the core of humanity’s dark heart.”

The Unfamiliar Garden, a standalone novel set in the same circumstances, takes us to Seattle, Washington, where assistant biology professor Jack Abernathy has taken his young daughter Mia with him as he searches for mushrooms and other fungi on the night of the meteor shower. When Mia disappears without a trace, Jack’s life goes into a tailspin, unraveling his professional life, his marriage to police detective Nora, and his emotional stability.

Five years later, Nora finds herself embroiled in a homicide case with chilling ritualistic similarities to a psychopathic killer who Nora helped put behind bars the previous year. And a graduate student of Jack’s, who had just picked up specimens from the same area where the gruesome homicide took place, suddenly becomes hideously ill with some unidentified, catastrophic contagion. As the contagion spreads, so too does a rash of violent murders with ritualistic overtones, and it soon becomes apparent that the two are related. Nora and Jack must put aside the differences that flared up from the tragedy of their past in order to work on understanding the cause of the contamination sweeping the region – but the more they learn, the more horrific that cause is exposed to be, especially when a secret government agency becomes involved in their investigation.

One would think that this action would be enough to carry a novel – and it is – but the strength of Ben Percy’s writing is how the action and setting, as terrifying and gruesome as they are, contains at its core the compelling, personal story of his central characters; characters that are flawed, yes, but also so very human. He draws us in by making everything so incredibly, warmly normal, and then exposes something that’s off, that’s concerning, that’s threatening, and keeps pushing his characters to their limits – then pushes them again. It’s absolutely spellbinding.

Thrilling? Yes. Horrifying? Yes, sometimes even gruesomely so (but only sometimes). Intriguing? Yes. Imaginative? Oh, yes. But above all, a genuinely touching human drama.

Very, very highly recommended.

—Sharon Browning