Stranded / Bracken MacLeod
Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 11:19PM
Dark Scribe Magazine in Book Reviews

Tor Books / October 2016
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

In this well-crafted novel of speculative fiction and suspense, author Bracken MacLeod draws upon the familiar to create something wholly unique. With an accessible writing style that combines the straightforward, stripped-down economy of prose that propels thrillers with the more esthetic refinement of literary fiction, Stranded is a conceptual triumph of style and substance.

The cargo ship Arctic Promise becomes icebound during a frigid polar storm en route to resupply the Niflheim, an oil drilling platform deep in the Arctic Circle. Navigation and communication systems malfunction, leaving the vessel inert in a sea of thick fog and even thicker ice. Right from the outset, the book earns its title.

When a mysterious illness overcomes the crew with crippling headaches, extreme fatigue, and shadowy hallucinations, merchant seaman Noah Cabot— inexplicably unaffected—is thrust into a reluctant leadership role. Faced with dwindling supplies and an increasingly unstable ship, Noah and a group of fellow crewmen set out across the ice-covered terrain toward a shape they spot on the frozen horizon. Adding to the mounting shipboard tension is a contentious, complex history between Noah and the ship’s captain—who happens to be his former father-in-law—that further threatens the well-being of the entire crew.

MacLeod ratchets up the man-against-nature peril by adding a supernatural element that steers the story from what at first offers cinematic shades of Carpenter’s The Thing into a decidedly more Twilight Zone territory. To say more would be a disservice to the revelatory twists that abound, but suffice to say that the payoff is decidedly creepy.

Claustrophobic and violent, the novel’s third act will both reward readers who were patient with MacLeod’s deliberate slow-build and satisfy slasher fans with its considerable bloodletting. The violence of this section, which might at first seem an abrupt change in pacing, feels both logical and inevitable, with the toxic masculinity of the all-male crew—fueled by the abject fear of their surreal circumstances—boiling over and exploding (both literally and figuratively). With Stranded, MacLeod has fashioned a modern genre re-telling of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies—male characters marooned in the middle of large bodies of water, escalating tensions between groupthink and individuality, a central paranoia surrounding a perceived other among them, and an eventual descent into chaos and savagery.

Like Dan Simmons’ The Terror, Stranded uses the unsettling atmosphere of the icy landscape to its full advantage—creating a bleak, white-gray palette that disorients and disarms the reader. Neither the characters trudging across the frozen terrain—nor the readers following them—can see what’s coming next in the absence of linear bends and boundaries. It’s a sensory whiteout that MacLeod pulls off marvelously with his considerable descriptive command. Equally impressive is the meticulous research that went into imbuing passages about maritime life and descriptions of the ship itself with precise details which give the Arctic Promise’s predicament that much more authenticity.

Like the finest writers straddling that line between genre and literary fiction these days—think Helen Marshall or David Nickle or Gemma Files or Helen Oyeyemi—MacLeod layers Stranded with rich, evocative language that brings great humanity to this otherworldly tale. Consider this gorgeous passage, in which the protagonist—dreaming—sits at the deathbed of his cancer-ravaged wife:

He sat beside the bed, holding his wife’s thin hand. Her skin looked like vellum paper. It was thin and delicately wrinkled, pale to the point of translucence. She had always been pleasantly tan, looking like someone who got her color from the sun on her skin while she hiked or rode a bicycle to just lie in the park and read a book. Hers wasn’t color you bought in a salon or sprayed on. And now it was gone. Along with her hair and her childish plumpness. Chemo has desaturated her and left her ethereal, like a photograph left in the light too long, losing its detail. A fading memory of a person.

Herein lies Stranded’s greatest strength and gives it distinction as a masterpiece work of fiction: Elucidation of the humanity within the horror without detracting from it. Man, when cornered by imposing physical strictures, will reveal his authentic self. MacLeod taps into those revelations, pulling back the veneer of civility, using the existential stressors and unearthly horror to coax out what lies beneath the surface of his literary ice.

Purchase Stranded by Bracken MacLeod.

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