James M. Tabor
Ballantine Books, March 2013
From the publisher—
The South Pole’s Amundsen Scott Research Station is like an outpost on Mars. Winter temperatures average 100 degrees below zero; week-long hurricane-force storms rage; for eight months at a time the station is shrouded in darkness. Under the stress, bodies suffer and minds twist. Panic, paranoia, and hostility prevail.
When a South Pole scientist dies mysteriously, CDC microbiologist Hallie Leland arrives to complete crucial research. Before she can begin, three more women inexplicably die. As failing communications and plunging temperatures cut the station off from the outside world, terror rises and tensions soar. Amidst it all, Hallie must crack the mystery of her predecessor’s death.
In Washington, D.C., government agency director Don Barnard and enigmatic operative Wil Bowman detect troubling signs of shadowy behavior at the South Pole and realize that Hallie is at the heart of it. Unless Barnard and Bowman can track down the mastermind, a horrifying act of global terror, launched from the station, will change the planet forever—and Hallie herself will be the unwitting instrument of destruction.
As the Antarctic winter sweeps in, severing contact with the outside world, Hallie must trust no one, fear everyone, and fight to keep the frigid prison from becoming her frozen grave.
As much as I don’t like, i.e., really don’t like cold weather, I’m inexplicably drawn to books set in very cold regions and, since this one takes place at the South Pole, I was automatically interested. I also love science-related thrillers so I was really on board with this one. I’m very happy to say I was not disappointed in the least.
When Hallie Leland arrives at the research station, it’s supposed to be a temporary assignment—finish the work of her predecessor who died and get out in less than a week, before all travel shuts down for the winter. The work involves diving into a lake under the ice and retrieving samples of a lifeform called an extremophile, code-named Vishnu, that seems to have properties that could stop global warming. The scientist who had died, apparently by suicide, was Emily Durant, a friend of Hallie’s, and Hallie has trouble believing Emily killed herself.
Before her first day is done, other women begin dying in horrific ways and it becomes even more crucial for Hallie to figure out what happened to Emily. While all that is going on, Hallie’s friends in Washington, Wil Bowman and Don Barnard, are picking up on signs that a major terrorist event linked to the research station and Hallie’s work may be about to happen. She’s pretty much on her own, however, because there isn’t enough time for anyone to fly into the station before the winter shutdown.
Mr. Tabor has a strong hand with plot development but I was even more taken with the characters, both good and bad, and I love that the central figure here is a woman who is intelligent and physically fit but also aware of her vulnerabilities without being weak. I also appreciated the fact that the bad guys she’s dealing with are not obviously the bad guys. The plot device that sticks in my mind the most is a trek that Hallie has to make from an outbuilding to the main structure; it really brought home the dangers of such a forbidding environment.
There was one stylistic thing I wasn’t crazy about—a scene ends on a climactic note, the next scene has the person explaining how they escaped (example: when Hallie’s suit freezes up while she’s outside). I’d rather see the person escape than be told about it after the fact. Other than that, I couldn’t stop turning the pages and was hurrying to find out how this would all end but also rather sad when I’d finished. The science may—probably does—have some gaps but details such as what the temperatures and the enforced isolation can do are compelling. The South Pole is the setting but is also a major character.
One last note, a warning actually—don’t read the Kirkus review if you can avoid it as it’s full of spoilers and you’ll miss out on a lot of the tension and fun. In the meantime, I’m off to find the first Hallie Leland book, The Deep Zone, while I wait for the next one.
Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2013.