This book is about life, death, and the desperation in between that we all hope is infrequent or nonexistent. The crew of the resupply ship “Arctic Promise,” headed into the Antarctic to deliver goods to a drilling platform, have the stakes raised beyond the hostile environment they’re already suffering. Between the cold, the sea, and the fractured relationships between some of the crew, it’s a wonder they’ve gotten this far. Once they’ve found themselves stuck in thick ice, matters only get worse.
Despite MacLeod’s declaration as a “secular” horror writer, he’s now produced three heart-pounding thrillers, by my estimation. Sure, there are always horrific elements, but what we have here is a volatile stew of suspense and all-too-human mistakes. Whatever the mysterious (and thrilling) circumstances that bring the crew into a nightmare involving freezing temperatures, a progressively debilitating illness amongst the crew, and deteriorating relationships; it never ventures into declared supernatural territory, never gives excuses or explanations where none are needed. I’m loathe to compare authors, but this reminded me of Stephen King’s hallmark technique of creating an insurmountable, inexplicable situation to explore the human condition. It’s a technique that I think works best when the ending doesn’t spell out the “why” of the precipitating event.
What happens in this story is a study in survival. The kind of perseverance required to survive one of the nastiest environments on Earth as well as some of the nastiest environments within human minds—all without being prepared for it. From the moment the story opens, to all of the crew’s subsequent decisions, the reader discovers more at every turn. The true nature of the situation is a breadcrumb trail sprinkled throughout the interpersonal chaos of the crew. What I think is especially well done is how the characterization has been smeared across the entire book along with the fallout of the event. It’s right into the final chapters that we learn about these people, treated with depth and care by MacLeod. There aren’t many quiet moments, but there are certainly many unexpected twists and turns and the scenes beyond the safety and relative warmth of the ship are terrifying.