The Unfamiliar Garden
November 10, 2021

Book Review

The Unfamiliar Garden

reviewed by Barbara Saffer


This is the second book in the Comet Cycle Series, about the consequences of a comet passing close to the Earth. Each book works fine as a standalone.

When the comet Cain speeds across the sky, people gather en-masse to watch the spectacle, and experts on television ominously explain that comets have long been associated with disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, pandemics, and more. Then the comet passes out of sight and people forget about it. Until a year later, when the Earth rotates through the debris field the comet left behind. For days, meteors fill the sky, and meteorites rain down on the planet.

On the second night of the meteor shower, Professor Jack Abernathy, a mycologist at the University of Washington, plans to hunt for mushrooms in the woods outside Seattle. Jack’s wife Nora, a homicide detective, is on a case, so Jack takes the couple’s eight-year-old daughter Mia with him. Mia is reluctant to venture into the dark spooky woods, so Jack promises to buy her graphic novels and jelly-bean candy, and Mia traipses along.

Jack parks Mia on a stump playing a game on his phone while he crawls around nearby examining the forest floor. Jack glances up at Mia once, sees she’s fine, and goes on with his work, snapping photos, taking measurements, making notes, and collecting mushroom samples. Later, when Jack is finished for the night, Mia is gone.

One result of Mia’s disappearance is the dissolution of Jack and Nora’s marriage, which – in any case – is a union of opposites. Nora is rigid, organized, and controlling while Jack is easy-going, permissive, and spontaneous. And the loss of Mia tears them apart.

Five years after Mia vanishes, following the Covid pandemic and a long drought in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is once again experiencing high rainfall. Fungi are spreading and mushrooms are sprouting everywhere. Detective Nora Abernathy is called out to a nature preserve in West Seattle, where the body of a mushroom hunter has been found, a man whose eye has been gouged out and whose skin is cross-hatched with lacerations that look like foreign writing. The murder appears to be a copycat killing, mimicking the modus operandi of a man – now in prison – who went on a murder spree after the meteor shower.

Meanwhile, Jack’s graduate student Darla brings mushroom samples back to the mycology lab, starts feeling sick, throws up gray gunk, and goes home. Later, when Jack goes to Darla’s apartment to check on her, the floor is covered with blood and muck, and Darla – with fingers bent into claws, gray slime spewing from her nose and mouth, and teeth gnashing – tries to bite him.

Strange things start happening all over the region. A restaurant delivery boy arrives at an apartment, sees blood seeping out beneath the door, and is snatched inside; the corpses of a family of four are found in their backyard, their bodies etched with cross-hatched markings; a father frantically calls 911, saying something is desperately wrong with his daughter; and much more. After receiving dozens of phone calls about odd phenomena, Nora herself encounters a dog weaving down the street, teeth covered with blood, eyes rimmed with fungal growth, and mushrooms sprouting from its nose and ears.

Nora’s suspicions about what’s happening lead her to contact her ex-husband Jack, and the two of them work together to investigate the scourge. Meanwhile, a secret government organization is performing perverse experiments in an effort to weaponize the phenomenon.

Unexpected events bring the Abernathys and the government researchers together, and the book becomes an exciting thriller.

In addition to writing a good story, Percy provides fascinating snippets about fungi. For instance, the largest living thing on Earth is a vast fungus that takes up almost 2,500 acres in the Pacific Northwest and is estimated to be over 8,000 years old. And a rain forest fungus can invade the bodies of ants and control their behavior.

The book is an excellent mash-up of mystery and science fiction that would appeal to fans of both genres.

Thanks to Netgalley, Benjamin Percy, and Mariner Books for a copy of the book.


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