Characters attempt to stave off madness amidst the deep freeze in Matthew Iden’s entertaining thriller ‘The Winter Over’

March 18, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 18, 2018

Matthew Iden’s 2017 novel The Winter Over is an entertaining thriller set at an isolated Antarctic station beset by a growing number of troubling events.

The main character is an engineer who as the book opens is about to spend her first winter at Shackleton South Pole Research Facility. (This fictitious base is modeled after a real place, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.) Cass Jennings and her colleagues are disturbed to discover, just days before the start of roughly nine months of isolation, that a resident has frozen to death.

That’s hardly the only blow to morale. A few weeks after the deep freeze has cut the station off from the outside world, unexplained glitches disrupt Shackleton’s heat, electrical and communications systems. The outpost’s troubles begin accumulating, placing Jennings and everyone else under extraordinary pressure.

In this passage, Jennings — who has a secret radio link to a Russian scientist named Vox — attempts to deliver a holiday meal to an astronomer working at one of Shackleton’s outbuildings:

With her left hand clutching the flag line, she staggered forward against a wind that, had she tried to fall, would’ve held her perfectly upright. The flurries were so savage that they turned the spray of ice crystals into a physical attack that largely ignored her three layers of clothing, dotting her neck and face with searing pinpricks and hitting her hood with a sound like radio static at full volume.

Visibility was zero. She knew that several red signal lights topped the COBRA lab building and, at just over a hundred meters away from the main station, she should be able to spot the lights from here, but the whiteout was total — she could see nothing but billions of snowflakes whipping past her face, barely illuminated by the frail red light of her headlamp.

The single piece of good news was that, with the wind rushing at the speeds it was, there was little buildup on the ground, and so no drifts to push through. If she could simply put one foot in front of the other one hundred and ten times, and not let go of the flag line in the meanwhile, she would find herself at the door to COBRA. She could drop off the cooler, put both hands on the line, and walk back to claim her reward from Pete. Struggling against the gale, feeling the ice begin to make its way down her neck and between her shoulder blades, it crossed her mind that she’d come across as seriously cheap at nothing more than two desserts and an extra glass of wine. She must’ve been food-drunk.

To occupy her mind, she began counting steps, kicking herself for not starting the moment she’d left the base. She might as well begin counting now . . . but how far had she come? Granted, it might seem like she’d been walking forever but, in truth, she’d been moving slowly, forging one step at a time. She’d only come thirty steps at best, so thirty it was. Thirty-one, thirty-two.

Her mind wandered, lighting on subjects then taking off again, landing nowhere for very long, blown off course like the flurries around her. She thought back to the conversation she’d had with Vox, about the potential that she was the subject of a psychological test meant to push her to her emotional limits, and what she should do about it.

From a number of perspectives, it seemed unlikely that she was the only one being tested. What kind of findings would they get by testing one person, under a single set of circumstances? It wouldn’t be worth it. Assuming that the theory of a station-wide test was real and not just a function of her suspicions, that meant that others were being tested in the way she was. But how many? And how often? And to what extent?

While Iden’s characters aren’t particularly vivid, the book makes up for it with its gripping premise. The Winter Over isn’t a great book, but it makes for a pretty enjoyable read.

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