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Book Review: The Ice Maiden by Sara Sheridan

Sara Sheridan’s The Ice Maiden is a remarkable tale: we gain fresh perspective into what it was like to be a seafarer’s wife, a woman on board ship, and a part of pioneering Polar expeditions.

1842. Stranded on Deception Island in the South Atlantic, her whaling captain husband lost at sea, Karina is destitute and desperate. Disguised as a cabin boy, she stows away on a British ship. But Karina is about to get a nasty surprise.

As she grows closer to ship’s surgeon Joseph Hooker, Karina and the rest of the crew find themselves pushed to the limits both physically and emotionally as conditions worsen onboard.

Engulfed in the chillingly hostile Antarctic landscape, something extraordinary happens – and Karina’s story becomes intertwined with some of the 20th century’s bravest Polar explorers …

The Ice Maiden is told in three distinct parts: one land-based, the next at sea, and the last of which is ice bound.

We first meet Karina on Deception Island. And although the name refers to it looking deceptively like an island, when in fact it’s a ring around a flooded caldera, could there be a more sinister-sounding place than Deception Island? It doesn’t bode well.

This ominous start and her life on Deception Island help explain why she takes the drastic next step in finding a way off the island. Her route out of there particularly fraught at a time when sailors were superstitious about women being on board ship, believing they brought bad luck, but of course this wasn’t the only way in which a woman’s presence could unsettle the men.

Life at sea is exceptionally hard and Sara Sheridan does an excellent job of bringing this working ship to life, with all the knocks, noise, smells and challenges of living in cramped quarters while being at the mercy of the elements. I was relieved when Karina finds some small measure of happiness and protection here, even though I sensed it would not last the voyage.

For the third and final act, Sara Sheridan steers her story towards the Antarctic and I felt the full force of her descriptive powers in this section. I could picture the frozen landmass so clearly: brutal, unforgiving, shifting, peaceful, lonely, inhospitable, stark but striking in an otherworldly way.

Sara Sheridan effects a sudden switch in the story here, which initially left me reeling and struggling to come to terms with what had just happened. But I trusted her storytelling skills and went with the shift in mood and atmosphere. There’s an ethereal, wraithlike quality to this section of the book, and Karina, which feels bound up in the landscape; both as majestic and menacing as the ice itself.

The Ice Maiden by Sara Sheridan is published by Severn House, an independent publishing house. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback and is out today in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. For more on Sara Sheridan and her writing, visit her Author Website or Facebook page. Alternatively, you can find her on Twitter.  

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