Book Review: Stranded by Bracken MacLeod
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (October 4, 2016)
Length: 304 pages
If Dan Simmons’ The Terror and The Fold by Peter Clines had a lovechild, I’d like to think the results would look a lot like Stranded. At first this book reads like a suspense-thriller with heavy shades of paranormal horror, but then we get a twist around the halfway point that arguably plunges it into sci-fi territory. And that’s when things starts to get really wild and interesting.
The story follows the crew of the Arctic Promise, a platform supply vessel for an oil rig in the Chukchi Sea. The main character Noah Cabot, ostensibly just a simple deckhand, also appears to be the resident whipping boy for everything that goes wrong aboard the ship, and we soon discover why: the ship’s master is William Brewster, Noah’s father-in-law from hell. The older man has never forgiven Noah for marrying his beloved daughter Abby, and has set out to make our protagonist’s life as miserable as possible by turning most of the crew against him. With few allies, Noah knows he has no other choice but to keep his head down and do the work.
But then one night, everything changes. After weathering through a particularly nasty storm, the Arctic Promise finds itself lost in a sea of fog with its navigation and communication systems down. What’s worse, once the visibility clears, the crew discovers that somehow their ship has gotten itself beset in second-year ice that stretches as far as the eye can see—an impossibility, given how they were just sailing in open water hours before. Things keep going downhill as one by one, the men on the ship are incapacitated by an unknown wasting sickness. Even Noah, who has remained relatively healthy, is not immune to some of its side effects which include the ghostly shadows that men are reporting to see in the corner of their visions. With none of the equipment on the ship working, the crew’s only hope is a mysterious structure they can barely spy in the distance, separated from them by an ocean of thick ice.
Stranded may have started with a heart-thumping opening sequence in which readers are thrown into the midst of a storm, but then the story pulls back a little as MacLeod gradually doles out the details of our maritime setting and establishes the protagonist’s situation aboard the ship. This book is like a ride that starts off slow, focusing first on the element of human drama and making us wonder why everyone on the Arctic Promise seems to have it out for Noah. As it turns out, Brewster’s grudge against him over Abby is only one half of the puzzle; the other has to do with a shocking incident that took place around a year ago while our main character was on the job. Hence the author spends a lot of time weaving the past into the present narrative, but seeing as how both points will come back to haunt Noah in a big way later on in the novel, all that measured build-up turned out to be worth it.
All the payoff is in the second half, there’s no doubt about that. The turning point drops not long after the crew discovers their ship trapped and they strike off onto the ice to investigate, and I think for many readers this will be the moment that determines whether they like this book or not. Personally speaking, I took this “make or break” plot twist in stride and ended up really enjoying myself, and even though this story is far from perfect, I thought the way the author pulled it off was pretty clever and slick. Overall this is a very entertaining tale, especially once things take off at a breakneck speed, culminating into a suspenseful climax and conclusion. I also liked the calculated progression in genres as we moved towards the grand finale; so much could have gone wrong along the way, but somehow this bizarre mash-up of thriller, mystery, horror and science fiction elements ended up working in the story’s favor.
That’s all I can say, really, without giving too much away. I’ll just close this off with a final piece of advice: try to read this in a warm place. Stranded is a good reminder humans are not meant for -40 degree temperatures; I swear I get chills just thinking about certain parts of the book (and it’s not all just because of the cold setting). The cruel atmosphere, engaging characters, and an entertaining plotline all helped make this one a fast, fun read. I’d check it out if it piques your interest.