Cover Image: The Unfamiliar Garden

The Unfamiliar Garden

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Member Reviews

*Note: I received an uncorrected ARC of this in exchange for a review. All opinions that follow are my own and are honest. MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW*
The Unfamiliar Garden might be my favorite Benjamin Percy book other than The Dark Net. 

Percy himself once said "the best horror takes a knife to the nerve of the moment." While not strictly horror, it blends horror with science-fiction and crime thriller that poignantly expounds on a number of things that haunt the collective human memory, from the need for strict categorization and classification, to the fear of climate change and that so much of the plant and fungal worlds are unknown to us, to the ways pandemics can quickly upend lives.  Thematically the novel opens up plants and fungi as functional metaphors for multiple abstract ideas that never quite feels clunky or forced. Much like fungi, the novel explores the interconnectedness of all things on this earth. 

What works about this novel is that ultimately these themes drive the characterization and the character arcs that follow. Nora and Jack are two polar opposites, one with a strict need for control, the other living spontaneously, which serves as a nice compliment to their two fields of work: police officer and mycologist/professor respectively. Garden has that Bob McKee-rules of writing-type thing down-pat: plot informs character informs plot informs character, and so on and so on. They both approach the problem of alien plant life from different angles . It helps too that the chapters alternate between perspectives, occasionally throwing a wrench in by giving us chapters from the perspectives of the antagonists. It would have been a cool formal trick to have a chapter told from the perspective of the fungus, but that doesn't happen here. 

In regards to the rules of its fiction, Percy grounds his fake alien fungi in the rules of real fungi, and adds an element of believability to the story. One thing I enjoy about Percy's books is that he does real research for them, and then throws his own twist on it, which seems to lineup with his working project of blending so-called 'literary fiction' with so-called 'genre fiction'. 

The prose, and my common criticism of Percy's prose overall, is that it's a mixed bag. The man often writes these astoundingly good sentences, but then he'll employ specialized verbs and devices like repetition to his own detriment sometimes. Nora, for example, is the categorical 'control freak' of the dual protagonist pairing, and all of this is reflected in any writing about her. What's effective here is when it comes through in her actions, but not in the narrator's descriptions of her. It often employs characterization in a list format. Nora is controlling because she does this. We know she's controlling because she does this. She also does three more things that show she's controlling, and so on. The same goes for Jack. We know Jack is the spontaneous one because he did these five things one time. This is often grating on the reader. My favorite scene of Jack's spontaneity that I think most effectively showed it were the opening chapters and when he goes to his grad student's apartment.  It comes down to the difference between showing and telling; telling is effective, in my opinion, for the establishing characterization, and everything that follows should come down to the action. There are too many moments where things we already know are reinforced constantly for the reader and are unnecessary.

As for the specialized verbs, I think this is typically a good thing of his writing, but there's some clunky use of verbiage in here that's distracting where something a little plainer would have done the trick. My favorite specialized verb in here is an effectively creepy use of the word 'unspooled'. 

Plot-wise and arc-wise, TUG mostly achieves its goals; the characters achieve their transformative moments and learn valuable lessons; the last 25% of the book is a big albeit sometimes muted feeling roller-coaster ride, and it leaves room for more.  However, and I rarely say this about books, but this could have benefited from being longer. Events are a little too tidy here, and some characters feel like stock characters or like they didn't have enough of an arc (Isaac namely). Isaac's moves in the story have a thin logic given the lack of space devoted to him. It's the same with the antagonist in The Ninth Metal and her lack of space. A good antagonist can often reflect back the thematic particulars of the story right back at the protagonist and subsequently the reader. The Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and The Judge in Blood Meridian are both phenomenal examples of this. I think Percy writes interesting antagonists that have the potential to be more.

 That being said, that doesn't necessarily detract too much from the quality of the novel. If Percy's rhetorical goal is to bring the best of both genre and literary together, then the plot bears equal importance to the characters, and we can't spend too much time mucking about in navel-gazing for side characters. 

The Unfamiliar Garden, above all, is a thoroughly enjoyable read. One gets lost in the mechanics of plot and world building (this being a standalone novel and the second in a trilogy, it has to pay its dues with repeated references to not only the past book, but to potential future stories as well) that one often forgets the criticisms of the novel.  It moves forward at a propulsive pace, and speaking as an educator, has teachable qualities too (if only they let us choose our own curriculum). The thematic particulars are relevant, it blends genres seamlessly, and above all else, it's fun.
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“The point is, everyone has stared hard at somebody and imagined a chalk line around that person’s body. Everyone is capable of slashing a knife or pulling a trigger. Probably you’re not going to, but you could—you can.”

Special thanks to @netgalley for allowing my to get an reader reader copy of @benjamin.percy’s second novel in the Comet Cycle series, #TheUnfamiliarGarden. This book was so great, for a myriad of reasons, but Percy knocked this one out of the park—I couldn’t put it down and read the whole thing in a day. 

Set in Seattle in the aftermath of the meteor shower first introduced in #TheNinthMetal, Jack, a biologist studying fungi, and Nora, a police captain, deal with the fallout of their daughter disappearing the night of the meteor shower five years ago. As new signs of life begin to show themselves after a long drought and a potential copycat murderer may be hitting Seattle, the couple must come together to uncover the mystery behind both, all while holding out hope for their lost daughter. 

So much about this novel was great, particularly because it was set in my backyard. Percy’s introduction of a new, but related meteor shower distasteful is well done; it feels organic while also making reference to the first book in a way that connects the stories, but doesn’t make it feel like a true sequel. Where I enjoyed the constant point of view switch in his first book, the limited perspective of characters in this novel really worked well and subtly mirrored the isolation of the characters in this novel. As my first book that I’ve read that specifically mentions COVID, it was an interesting plot point given the focus of the story—it didn’t feel like Percy threw COVID in as a quirky afterthought, but really used the experience of the pandemic to dictate how characters handle the alien contagion. 

I’m just overall super impressed with this story in particular as I often find sequels to be lacking that zing found in the first book of a solid series.
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Percy is very prolific and probably has a large fan base, so this should sell well. He knows how plot a good story, and this has a good premise and great pacing, Recommended for those seeking an engaging sci-fi tale with bits of horror.

I really appreciate the free ARC for review!!
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NetGalley provided an advance copy of this book for my review. I'd not previously read The Ninth Metal, so to avoid the risk of missing some important backstory context, I read that one first.

Turned out there was no need. An important element of each story is an unexpected result of an intense meteor shower after Earth passes through the tail of a near-miss comet. There are a few cross-over, fairly minor, nasty characters. And the ninth metal plays a key role in the resolution of The Unfamiliar Garden. Aside from that, the two books are basically stand-alone. You can definitely read The Unfamiliar Garden without first reading The Ninth Metal.

Whereas The Ninth Metal is kind of a wild west gold rush meets X-Files romp, The Unfamiliar Garden is a cross between a hard-boiled detective novel and a sci-fi horror novel. Another important thread in The Unfamiliar Garden is how brutally the disappearance of a child affects the parents, who cling to hope despite long passages of time.

I learned a fair bit about mushrooms and fungi, as they play a central role after rain finally returns to the PNW following a 5-year drought (it isn't clear whether the drought was caused by the comet or climate change). The plot moves along at a pretty good clip, and I got so caught up in following the action that it wasn't until I finished the book that I took some time to think about the in-hindsight obvious question: symbionts or parasites?

There are references to COVID-19, quarantines and lock-downs, which evoked a bit of a stress response and had me cheering for Nora and Jack.

I will be watching for The Comet Cycle Book 3. Will Benjamin Percy somehow bring together the characters and themes from books 1 and 2? Or will it be another stand-alone examination of a close-encounter-with-a-comet "what if" scenario?
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This book isn't quite as good as its predecessor, The Ninth Metal. This one is more far-fetched. A lot more. That said, it's still very entertaining and definitely worth the read. The characters are well developed and easy to pull for or against. I recommend it.
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The Unfamiliar Garden by Benjamin Percy is a superb book with an engrossing plot and well drawn characters. Well worth the read!
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Ebook/Science Fiction:  This is book 2 of the series and I would like to thank NetGalley for an advanced copy in lieu of an honest review.
From my guess, this book's setting is happening at the same time as book one, only in a different part of the country. While the comet let omnimetal in Michigan, alien fungus was dropped in Washington State. Now five years later, there is a reckoning. 
This book has a whole new set of characters, but isn't the bloodbath book one was. The book does make me curious if the next final book will be characters from the first two all meeting, or set in another place. 
This book was okay and not as spectacular as the first. In the first book, it was more of characters reactions to new wealth from the omnimetal. This book is more of a interaction to the fungus.  This book really doesn't parallel the first book.
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I am one of those mushroom hunters, So I loved having a specialist in that field as one of the hero of the book. This will particularly please fans of detective story and thrillers. Sadly I wasn’t so much in the mood for one. I couldn’t quite get into it, partly because of the “distancing writing style, and also I think because I didn’t like the characters very much.
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Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this publication! I really enjoyed this book!
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This started out really promising. If you want to lure me in, using the word 'fungi' is really effective. I find them so fascinating and weird and amazing. Anyways, the first 80% (ish) of this book had me really hooked. I thought the writing was good and the story development was good etc. Then towards the last part of the book it became something else. Somehow the ending felt sloppy or not very thought out. Things seemed to fall in to place a little too conveniently, and it just wasn't interesting anymore. There were also a few lose ends, I felt, that weren't tied up. I personally also didn't care for the POV of Isaac and Ricketts. Ricketts felt like a charicature crazy-woman/villain. It was still a solid read, but I feel the ending could be better
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This story runs in parallel to the first book in the series The Ninth Metal, and is equally engrossing.  In this book, fungi presumably from the same meteorites that brought omnimetal to Minnesota are flourishing the State of Washington with some alarming outcomes.  There's a lot of fascinating science about mushrooms and the field of mycology.  It's also about a couple who lose their young daughter, and subsequently each other.  It's interesting to get inside both of their heads, as they grapple with the grief and depression, and also this fungal invasion.  Nora is a Seattle police detective, and Jack is a mycologist with the University of Washington, and their paths soon cross as the body count rises.  Like The Ninth Metal, the characters come together in a pleasing conclusion.  These are very short books, but nice standalone stories, very well written, and it's not absolutely necessary to read them sequentially.  That creep with the bowtie makes another appearance, but other than that it's a new cast.  There are hints of other strange comet related happening elsewhere in the world, so I'll be watching for additional stories!
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Unfortunately the copy sent to my Kindle was printed so lightly, and there was nothing I could do to darken the font, that I was unable to read it. The writing was literally maybe 3 shades darker than the background. Impossible to read without a headache.
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The Unfamiliar Garden by Benjamin Percy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely love feeling this gleeful after reading a novel. Wickedly gleeful, that is.

First, let me get something out of the way. While the first novel in the series (The Ninth Metal) shares a common event with it -- the world-changing post-meteorite chaos -- it only does so obliquely and both are self-contained. It can be read on its own without any issue.

That being said... Just wow.

It's equal parts murder thriller with an EXTREMELY cautious heroine, a heart-wrenching family tragedy with very sympathetic characters, and an all-out horror by the end.

No spoilers, folks, but this will be a must-have horror/SF for fans of Vandermeer. While it is nicely grounded and beautifully tragic for most of the novel, it goes out on a great gardening limb later on that had me whooping with joy when it got weird. I love weird. I love THIS kind of thing, especially.

In reality tho, I just want to spoil the hell out of this novel and keep chatting about it and icking out about it and ask the other huge questions such as WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE??? because I'm totally on board. I want EVERYTHING.

Yes. You might say I'm very, very excited by this one. Give me more of the corrhizae!!! :)
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A well-plotted, fast-paced book. I remain a fan of this worthy author. If you are looking for an immersive read, this is it.
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Percy’s “The Unfamiliar Garden” is the second book in his Comet Cycle, following on the heels of his “The Ninth Metal.” Although both novels focus on what happens to earth during an unprecedented meteor storm, the settings and characters for both are entirely separate and therefore Garden can be read quite easily as if it were a standalone novel.

Set in the lush wet world of the Puget Sound, “The Unfamiliar Garden” begins with a meteor storm that delights and scares young children. It follows (and does an absolutely extraordinary job of character development) the lives of a scarred couple, Jack and Nora, after the loss of their five-year-old daughter, Mia. They were always an odd couple, who came together not so much because of commonalities, but because sometimes opposites attract and fit together like two puzzle pieces that were always designed to fit together. Nora is a tough-as-nails Seattle police detective. Some might term her cold and emotionless. She is organized, systematic, and always focused on the smallest details. Nothing in her world is ever unplanned. Jack, a fungus-studying professor at U-Dub is the exact opposite. He is spontaneous, fun-loving, inspirational. They met one night when homeowners called about a strange homeless man scrunching back in the greenbelt and Jack’s energy and verve caused Nora to do what she never does and agree to a dinner date to taste the mushrooms he had found.

Five-year-old Mia is the joy of their lives and is generally fun-loving and spontaneous. Jack is taking her to see his research first-hand in the rainforest of the northwest. She is not into it and, when he turns his back, she disappears into thin air. There is no forgiveness from Nora. How could there be? Their marriage, thin as it was, fell to pieces. Nora stayed in the family home, wrapping all of Mia’s toys in plastic. Jack is the oddball professor who no one believes is a real professor. It would be a farce to say neither one was ever whole again. It is more like there is barely anything left for either to live for again. Five whole years go by and despair follows them like falling rain.

And, that is somewhat remarkable because the climate change wrought by the meteor storm has changed the Puget Sound’s weather from a damp, moist lichen-filled world to a five-year drought when little could grow. And, now, for whatever reason, the rains have returned and the seeds that were germinating are growing again. Jack’s research may blossom, but the world may never again be the same.

It is a horror story that Signourey Weaver would be proud of. It is a science fiction story of a possible future that is nearly incomprehensible in how different things could become from what they are now. And, what makes it work so well is the slow decisive character development that draws the reader in. This is remarkably underrated series.
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This superbly plotted and characterized novel is Book 2 of Benjamin Percy's exceptional series THE COMET CYCLE. I adored Book 1, THE NINTH METAL (Release June 1 2021), and THE UNFAMILIAR GARDEN even surpasses it, focusing on my other major fascination besides Space: Fungi! I will read anything I can on this topic, so I'm highly gratified that it's the foundation of such a fantastic novel as THE UNFAMILIAR GARDEN.  Benjamin Percy is firmly in the pantheon of All-Time Favorite Authors! I've just read in immediate succession THE NINTH METAL and THE UNFAMILIAR GARDEN; now it's on to RED MOON and DEAD LANDS. Mr. Percy's work is a sure cure for any "oh, what do I read next?" blues. 

THE NINTH METAL focused on the metal deposits the massive meteor showers of Comet debris dropped on Northern Minnesota five years ago.  It looked to mining and wealth production,  to Cosmic Portent and Metaphysics.  In THE UNFAMILIAR GARDEN,  the Cosmic Portent is potential no longer: after five years of drought, the Pacific Northwest,  with its prior history of 100 rain inches annually,  is finally experiencing precipitation again, and as a beloved children's book title reminds us, "Mushrooms Grow In the Rain. " When the growth is Alien, it's a lot more than just growth: it's colonization.  The world may end, not with a bang; not with a whimper; but with a squelch. 

THE UNFAMILIAR GARDEN releases January 2022.
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