In this YA science-fiction debut, a teen’s strange encounter causes his body to slowly become metal.
Fifteen-year-old Delbert Hanks of Claxburg, Maryland, is on his high school’s swim team and harbors a longtime crush on Savannah O’Neill, his classmate. He considers himself completely average until one day, cutting through a ravine after school, he collides with a frenzied soldier in fatigues. The soldier acts like they’re in a war zone and carries bottles of an energy drink called Atomic Plus. Offered one, Delbert declines. The soldier asks, “You want to die?” before dissolving into a pile of sand. Afterward, Delbert staggers home concussed and bloodied. He tells his mother, best friend Erik Fisher, and the authorities about “the Sandman,” but nobody believes him. Two weeks later, Delbert gets labeled the school weirdo and is suspended for fighting football player (and Savannah’s boyfriend) Clayton Ridgely. He starts having visions—which he calls Shifting—of things both strange and menacing (including the presence of an American boy in Germany named Trevin). Worse than Shifting, however, are the patches of rust appearing all over his body. Though author Gerard sets up a surreal mystery in his debut, this first book in a new series focuses more on Delbert’s friendship with Erik and his connection with Savannah. The narrative is framed cleverly as a journal that Delbert has left behind after his own demise; throughout are redacted phrases and notes by one Col. Alan J. Westmont, a sinister figure who once (presumably) handled the journal. Gerard excels at painting youth as precious and fleeting—“suddenly the past seemed small and juvenile and limited, as if I no longer had a need for it.” Occasionally, the Shifting sequences feel inserted for their shock value (“The mirror explodes. The boy’s face splinters into countless shards of pointed glass”). The finale delivers a head-spinning jolt but without answering any of the story’s larger questions.
A coming-of-age tragedy with unique sci-fi undercurrents.