A woman attempts to throw off Victorian convention as an explorer—and a lover.
Flora Mackie’s upbringing is unconventional, to say the least; after her mother dies when she's 12, her father, a whaling captain, brings his daughter on his travels toward the North Pole, where she learns the way of ships and navigation by stars. It’s no wonder that when she chooses to study meteorology at university she does so with an eye to returning north to pursue her own goals at the earliest opportunity. Temporarily distracted by a tempestuous romance with a fellow student, however, it soon seems that Flora's desire to be a scientist and explorer will always war with affairs of the heart and the body. Indeed, for most of the novel, Flora’s travels and studies seem to rank secondary to the desires of her body, and as she is schooled in the art of sex and the complications of love by her husband and lovers, there are a lot of graphic sex scenes. And herein lies the problem with Penney's (The Invisible Ones, 2012, etc.) novel: while there's no reason that Flora, as a multidimensional woman, shouldn’t have a flourishing and liberated personal life, this side of the plot quickly overshadows the unique and beautiful side that describes her experiences in the exotic north. Then again, there are some lovely moments of prose, such as, “To winter’s home; the whiteness that is always there, falling with infinite slowness, infinite patience, into the sea.” The descriptions of the ice, of the endless nights and days that characterize the north, are beautiful; if only they hadn't been just backdrops to assignation after assignation.
For a novel about “blackmail, lies, murder," it’s rather light on the intrigue and heavy on the petting.