Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Stranded by Bracken MacLeod

There’s a very special sort of desperation that accompanies being left helpless in an arctic setting. I believe I first encountered this sensation as a young lad while watching Carpenter’s The Thing. In more recent years, it was the central focus of The Terror, the wonderfully oppressive odyssey by Dan Simmons (and the book I initially I thought I’d be comparing Stranded to, but ultimately the setting and the ship trapped in ice are the only real similarities between the two).

Noah Cabot, a deckhand on the Arctic Promise, is the central character of the story. Cabot has few friends on the ship, due to being indirectly responsible for a crewmate’s death. His father-in-law, the ship’s captain, despises him more than anyone else. It’s bad enough to be stuck working on a ship where 90% of the people loathe you, but it’s certainly far worse when that ship becomes trapped in pack ice with no sign of it coming loose. Once the “stranding” occurs, the real story begins. The entire crew, save Cabot, come down with an unknown illness, and all of them (including Cabot) are seeing things in the corners of their eyes, things they can’t quite register. Days pass. They can’t radio for help, but they see something off in the distance. They’re desperate. They have no choice but to head off to this unknown shape. What they find when they arrive is certainly not what they expect.

Overall, this is a really strong novel. Tightly written, with its main strength being the tension and extremely stressful action scenes. There were more than a few moments when I wanted to yell “Holy Shit” out loud, and one scene on the ice that left me breathless.

There’s a bit of an existential slant to this book (at least that’s how I took it), but to say anything more would be spoiling the major horrific reveals in the book. There’s some weight given to “what-ifs,” which I’m sure anyone who has ever been in the center of tragedy and bad decisions can relate to. It’s not what I was expecting, which is obviously a good thing. I’m glad it ended up being a completely different approach to attempted survival in an arctic hell than The Terror. Many of the blurbs claim it has a Twilight Zone feel, and I honestly can’t disagree. I can’t predict this for certain, but I’m pretty sure MacLeod’s book is at least going to make the final ballot for the Stoker Awards this year. And I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at that occurrence.