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A 19th-century debut historical indefatigable in its details but curiously underdriven by character.

Young Brendan Kane, having witnessed pretty much all the Civil War carnage he can stand, deserts from the northern army, makes his way to New York, and ends up as crewman on a fortune-hunting Arctic expedition with the ship Narthex. Also on board are the voyage’s monetary backer, the shadowy West, who plays the pianola in his closed cabin; the by-the-book captain, Griffin; and Dr. Architeuthis, the hyper-knowledgeable and compulsively sample-collecting scientist who waits until a point well into the expedition before revealing its purpose: to find the volcanically warmed paradise—a kind of Arctic Eden—that he’s absolutely certain is there. Other shipmen on board aren’t so sure—the quick-witted Adney, the experienced and powerful Reinhold, not even Aziz, the sensitive fellow with an extra hand on one of his arms who stays below to man the boiler. Before the real suffering begins, Kane, befriending Aziz, learns that the kindly boy is in flight from a land where children are purposely deformed in order to be sold as freaks (his own father was one of the most grotesque of these, a “rope eater”). Hanging on only this ultrathin and exceedingly dubious symbolic thread, the novel trudges on. Winter brings severe storms, the ship is crippled, then crushed by ice, and must be abandoned (excepting Aziz, who stays to die). Extraordinary hardships and near starvation follow even as Dr. Architeuthis pushes on—and on, and on—toward his Eden. Toes and fingers will fall off, feet be amputated, men will sicken, be injured, go mad (or worse) and one by one die, until, Ishmael-like, only Brendan Kane will remain—yes, to tell the tale.

For all that, the reader won’t know him any better than the other rent-a-cast characters, nor will his closing blather of pseudo-mystical prose help. Lots of adventure, nothing in it.

Pub Date: Dec. 30th, 2003
ISBN: 0-385-50977-4
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2003