In 1553 the English sought an Arctic passage to Cathay and, though they failed to get through, they did establish commercial contact with Moscow. From then on Dutch, Russian, Scandinavian, and American expeditions have made the attempt despite consistently high casualties, and in 1878 the Swedish Vega made it through, becoming the first ship to sail completely around the Eurasian continent. Today the Soviets, aided by icebreakers, make heavy use of their Northern sea route. (Orlob ends anticlimactically, however, with their turning back an American ship.) The history of the Northeast Passage is packed with true adventure, but Orlob's pedestrian, stiffly conventional style doesn't do justice to the potential drama. And readers who aren't geography whizzes will be frustrated by her frequent, casual use of place names, which they may or may not locate on the dinky front page map that provides the only orientation.