Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney

  Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Arctic, explorer, women, love, ambition

I enjoyed The Tenderness of Wolves, when I read it many years ago, but I can’t remember much about it now. The only lingering impression I have is the atmospheric feeling of life in a cold environment. Stef Penney perfectly captures this harsh existence, but I suspect that is all I’ll remember of Under a Pole Star in years to come too.

Under a Pole Star is a sprawling novel about polar expeditions at the end of the 19th century. The central character is Flora, a girl who was brought up on a whaling ship after the death of her mother. She grows into a confident young woman, keen to go against tradition and become the first female polar explorer. The book is essentially a love story, but the historical details should be enough to interest those who aren’t fans of the romance genre.

The novel appears to be very well researched, with some fantastic period detail – especially regarding the status of women in Victorian times. The chapters set in the arctic regions were also realistic and I especially loved the tension created during some of the more dangerous moments.

When the blizzard dies down, two days later, plates of ice fall on them, and the valley outside is white and silent – no animal, bird or plant is visible, nor sign that they were ever here. The only thing still moving is the shrunken river, grumbling darkly through a land in which life appears not only wiped out, but inconceivable.

Unfortunately I found the book a bit too meandering for my taste. The plot was too slow in places and I frequently found myself becoming bored with it. I almost abandoned it a few times, but persevered because other scenes were very good.

I must also warn the reader about the explicit content of this book. Graphic sex scenes are scattered throughout and, although I was impressed by their sensual nature, I know they will be too much for some.

Overall, this is a worthwhile read for anyone willing to plough through a 600+ page novel with a few slow sections. Those who make the effort will be rewarded with some beautiful arctic imagery – perfect for this time of year!


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