Review 1344: Minds of Winter

Cover for Minds of WinterBest Book!
By coincidence, Fay Morgan, who has traveled to Tuktoyaktuk, within the Arctic Circle, to track down information about her missing grandfather, meets Nelson, a man whose brother Bert has also disappeared. Fay’s search has been jump-started by the discovery of an old chronometer disguised as a carriage clock. This instrument was carried into the Arctic by Commander Crozier, a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. Fay remembers the clock, however, in her grandmother’s house when she was a child. Oddly, Bert Nilsson, Nelson’s brother, was investigating the disappearance of his own great-uncle, whose tracks seem to intersect with those of Hugh Morgan, Fay’s grandfather.

Mixed in with the story of Fay’s investigations is the track of the chronometer, beginning in 1841 in Van Diemen’s Land, to which the ships Terror and Erebus are lately returned from Captain Ross’s exploration of the Antarctic. They will be going to the Arctic in Sir John Franklin’s search for a Northwest Passage. With him goes Commander Crozier.

This is an absolutely riveting book, following the course of a series of polar explorations up through the years to post-World War II, and finally to the present with Fay’s search. This novel does not so much document their physical hardships but explore the state of mind that leads men to return to these harsh regions again and again. It also follows the mystery of the chronometer. What path brought it back to England after it disappeared into the Arctic? What happened to Commander Crozier, last seen traveling with an old one, a race of men known by the Inuit to have been there longer than they?

O’Loughlin has done a beautiful job of intermingling history and fiction, reality and mysticism to write this novel, an exploration in itself. This novel is wondrous.

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Day 596: Aurorarama

Cover for AuroraramaThe city of New Venice floats on the ice in the Arctic Circle in this steampunkish work of fantasy fiction. The city is a supposed near-utopia, not a utopia because it is ruled by the corrupt Council of Seven and their sinister police force, the Gentlemen of the Night. The residents of the city dress in Victorian clothing and go on about their business, which is most often the pursuit of pleasure (and their idea of pleasure, basically sex and drugs, also doesn’t fit into my idea of a utopia). A black airship hangs over the city, but no one seems concerned about it.

The novel has two main characters, friends. Brentford Orsini is an aristocrat, an administrator of the city gardens, and a friend to the frightening Scavengers. He is concerned about the behavior of the Council of Seven, particularly in its mistreatment of the Inuit, and has anonymously published a subversive pamphlet called “A Blast on a Barren Land.” Gabriel d’Allier is more of a bohemian, concerned with his own pleasure. He is a reluctant professor at the city college who is being pushed out by the machinations of a colleague and his accusations of impropriety with students. He also soon finds himself receiving the unwelcome attentions of the Gentlemen of the Night, who think he knows who wrote the pamphlet.

Brentford receives a visit from a ghost in his dreams, Helen, a former lover, who tells him to make a trip to the North Pole. He heads out the morning after his disappointing wedding. Gabriel, who has ruined Brentford’s wedding and is in despair about his own love affair, sets out on his own intending to freeze to death outside the city’s controlled Air Architecture.

At this point, the novel, which is imaginative and well written in a style that is faintly Victorian (and has, as you can see, a beautiful cover—yes, I got it for its cover), becomes one of the silliest books I have ever read. It is almost hallucinogenic at times, like a combination of watching a side show and taking too many drugs. I can imagine it developing some kind of cult following, but I found it exceedingly ridiculous.

At one point when the book describes Snowdrift and Reliance, a book being read by one of the characters, I felt the description could have been self-referential, just substituting Victorian for Elizabethan:

Part melodrama, part Elizabethan tragedy, Snowdrift and Reliance has little to recommend it to the reader’s benevolence, the bewildering intricacies of its plot being further shrouded by unfathomable esoteric symbolism, not to mention an amphigoric style whose only coherent trait is its consistent lack of taste.

Day 513: Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson

Cover for Fatal JourneyGiven that little is known about the final voyage of Henry Hudson, Fatal Journey‘s tag line (A Tale of Mutiny and Murder in the Arctic) seems to promise more than it can deliver. In fact, I often felt that history and anthropology professor Mancall padded this short book’s content with whatever came to hand.

Hudson’s final voyage to try to find the fabled Northwest Passage ended in 1611 in James Bay. He and his men had been forced to spend a brutal winter there, and now that the ice was starting to melt, Hudson was trying to decide whether to press on or return to England. At that point, some of his men mutinied and set Hudson, his son, and other crew members adrift in a small boat. They were never seen again. The only evidence of their fate is from the testimony of the surviving mutineers, who claimed that the engineers of the mutiny all died on the way home.

Mancall’s book looks at Hudson’s other voyages in more detail and describes in a matter-of-fact, undramatic way the hardships of the final journey. He also fills in a lot of information about other voyages of exploration, maritime law, just about anything sea-related. This approach is sometimes interesting, sometimes frustrating, as when he starts out the chapter about the mutineers’ trial with ten pages on the history of the crown’s attitude toward piracy.

For the most part, I felt that the book could be replaced by a long, more interesting magazine article. Hudson hardly appears in this book and we hear nothing directly from him. So, I was especially bothered by the author’s conclusions that Hudson’s fate was due to his own hubris.