Zodiac Station by Tom Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
You’d think the biggest danger in the Arctic Circle would be freezing to death or being eaten by a polar bear, but as always it turns out that people are worse than anything Mother Nature can throw at us.
It starts out with a Coast Guard ship on patrol in the Arctic when a man on skis approach the ship over the ice. He says his name is Thomas Anderson, and he’s the only survivor of a disaster at a research outpost called Zodiac Station. Anderson tells a story of how he was a lowly lab tech whose once promising career had been derailed when he gets a sudden offer to come to Zodiac and work with his old mentor on a project. Unfortunately, right after he gets to the station they find his mentor dead after apparently falling into an ice crevasse, but the circumstances and several of the people at the station seem suspicious to Anderson. After the Coast Guard discovers other survivors at the station they hear other viewpoints that cast doubts on Anderson’s version, but when the tale involves possible conspiracies that might be related to climate change, oil companies, and Russian espionage it becomes impossible to know who to believe about what.
Overall, I was impressed with how well written this was. I thought it might be a pure airport bookstore type, but this is solid writing that builds up interesting characters and an increasingly puzzling scenario. The descriptive stuff about living and working at an Arctic research station was exceptionally well done, and it showed what a hard and dreary existence that would be spiced up with the dangers of living in such a harsh environment. So it’s a very solid thriller told in a unique way with an ending I never saw coming.
However, I very nearly didn’t read it.
This book popped up as a recommendation from Amazon after I read another cold weather tale of survival recently, and since I’m fascinated by the idea of scenarios involving polar research stations I thought I’d give it a try. (I blame The Thing for biting me with that particular bug in my teens.)
However, the quick skim of reviews I did before getting it nearly waved me off. A whole lot of people on Goodreads complained about an ambiguous ending that doesn’t resolve anything and some other problems. So I had doubts, but tried it anyhow since I already had it reserved at the library. I'm glad I did. Frankly, I thought the ultimate wrap up was very clever, and if I was a different kind of asshole I might say that those people who hated the ending missed the point.
In fact, I’m kind of shocked that not one of the reviews I read mentioned a key point, and I think it’s this factor that is going to shift your perspective a lot as to how you view the ending. [ Frankenstein. This is a story that uses Frankenstein as a template from the start with a ship finding a man with with a wild story out on the ice, and then it is ultimately revealed that a genuine creature created by science is the catalyst for all of this. The creature turns on it’s creator, and in the end the creature leaves the ship.
Yes, the stuff about Anderson’s ex-wife and husband being alive and hiding in a secret lab where they’ve created a new kind of human is something for which there is no groundwork laid and sounds like something out of a B movie. But to work this plot as written it really needs to come as a complete surprise with no hint of what kind of story we’re getting which is kinda of a rebooted retcon of Frankenstein for the 21st century….Maybe? Whatever. It worked for me. (hide spoiler)]
Having said all that I understand if a reader knew all this and still was angry at the end because it does take a spectacular leap that might leave someone feeling blindsided. Or if you didn’t catch what I discussed in the spoilers it’s still understandable that you’d feel like you got bait-and-switched by this book. Those are legitimate views that I wouldn’t argue with if you felt like you had been burned.
However, I find a lot of what’s done in genre fiction cliched at this point, and to be completely surprised by something coming out of left field like that was a pleasant surprise that I enjoyed. So if the setup sounds like something you’d be interested in I’d just say that you should be ready for the story to go off in a wild direction at the end.
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