The Ice Master - Jennifer Niven

Review by Simon Pinion

WITH only five minutes to spare at Gatwick departure lounge on Christmas Day (2001) my usual 30 minute (at least) deciding period on the next book to read, looked like it would have to be rushed.

Life stories of both Brooklyn and David Beckham were on offer, but they somehow didn't appeal. I needed something to enthrall me during the six hour flight to New Jersey.

I ended up deciding on 'The Ice Master', by Jennifer Niven. Quickly scanning the back page, it revealed that it was a true story about a not commonly known tale of an expedition to The Arctic Circle. It was the writer's first novel, using her research skills learnt while working at NBC to assist her.

The book is written as a story, but with many quotes built in from the various diaries that were written by those stranded in The Arctic. These diaries were the main source of information for the book and they are a precise and intricate source of information, not only providing the facts; but also giving an insight into the feelings and fears of those who believed their futures were doomed.

It is difficult to summarise too much of the story, without giving some of the important events away. Therefore I will only give a vague outline.

An expedition, led by an explorer who wanted to be remembered as someone who made a great discovery, sets out to find a new land in The Arctic. The boat chosen to embark on the journey was an army reject, not fit for the huge task of definite ice drifts.

The captain, crew and scientific staff were assembled at speed, and were often not first choices. Many had never been to anywhere offering the harsh conditions of The Arctic. Some had never been on an expedition at all, and really had no concept of the trip they were entering in to.

The trip was doomed from the start. It was not to reach the desired destination. The balance of the story is of survival, in the most dramatic of conditions. Murder, starvation and betrayal are some of the features of their time stranded in The Arctic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and even though I was jet-lagged through much of the time I was reading it, I found it hard to put down. The ordeal that these people had to get through was immense. To empathise with such an extreme story, brings a sense of dread over you.

It is powerful stuff, and very well written. The research must have been a mammoth task, with a balanced view being the end result. It is a deserving testament to the enormity of what went on.

The only criticism I have is that the photographs featured in the book sometimes give too much away. They are not in the same sequence as the book which means that you can sometimes find out too much by looking at them. It's a bit like sneaking a look at the end before it's time, so I would recommend leaving the photos till last.

If you like the idea of a well-written true story, with plenty to keep you riveted to the pages, then this is well worth a try.