Under A Pole Star by Stef Penney


My book club read for September was Stef Penney’s latest novel, Under A Pole Star. This is the first book I have read from this author, although I had heard of this book previously along with The Tenderness Of Wolves – another book I haven’t got round to picking up! With a story of exploration in a cold climate, the premise appealed to me, and I read on with high expectations…

The novel begins in 1948, where we are introduced to Flora Mackie, a woman who had been known as the Snow Queen due to her life of exploration. It was a part of her life that had been ever present since her father took her with him across the Arctic Circle at the age of twelve. And we return to this trip, in 1883, as we begin to follow Flora through her remarkable journey, one in which she discovers new lands, and discovers a lot about herself. Given the era in which this story is set, it was great to see a female making strides in a male dominated world. But as many believe Flora had no place in this harsh world, she remains determined, leading an expedition to northern Greenland, defying the expectations of those around her. But it is not just Flora, who is from Dundee, who makes the trip. Her path crosses with a rival expedition, one which includes Jakob de Beyn, a geologist from Manhattan. But as the two groups compete with a collision of ambition, Flora and Jakob find themselves drawn together. As the story progresses the reader gets to see Flora’s coming of age, and to see how she deals with life in a cold climate, in addition to the relationships that develop, and the people that she meets.

From the opening chapters my interest was piqued by the prospect of an expedition to find new lands, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape. However, as I read on I did have mixed feelings about the book. There were a lot of characters introduced in this story and finding out about each of them made for an interesting read. The relationships that develop between these characters, both Flora and Jakob and their bonds with fellow explorers and the Inuit make up a large proportion of this book. And at around 600 pages, this is quite a lengthy read. One thing that I noted whilst reading was that there were a lot of sex scenes in the book, many of which were written in quite explicit detail. Whilst I am not adverse to romantic scenes in books, I did feel that in places it was a little excessive and didn’t really add a great deal to the story. However, this may be just my personal preference and there were plenty of positives to take from this book. It is clear that a lot of love and research has gone into it, and there is a lot of detail about the culture at the time for both the explorers and the people they met along the way. This includes details of life in their communities, the beliefs, and how they survive living in such a cold climate. This added an authenticity to the story, and made for a fascinating read. I enjoyed the depictions of the Arctic in all its harsh beauty, the impact that the environment had on those who lived and explored there. Stef Penney has captured the atmosphere of the icy landscape perfectly, and I read on intrigued to find out what happened to the expedition, to get to the truth about what happened to the explorers – those who survived, and those who succumbed to the extremes…

Under A Pole Star is an enjoyable read, and one that is well written. Whilst I think perhaps it could have been a little shorter, I did enjoy many elements of this story – one of love and loss, of ambition and passion, and a quest into unknown worlds.

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