Review: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

As you can tell from my love letter to The North Water, I like books set in the arctic. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an explorer right after my ballerina phase and just before my Indiana Jones phase. (Current phase: I want an office with a door.) I excitedly requested Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter from NetGalley when I saw the Franklin Expedition’s prominent place in the blurb:

In a journey shrouded in mystery and intrigue, Sir John Franklin’s 1895 campaign in search of the Northwest Passage ended in tragedy. All 129 men were lost to the ice, and nothing from the expedition was retrieved, including two rare and valuable Greenwich chronometers. When one of the chronometers appears a century and a half later in London, in pristine condition and crudely disguised as a Victorian carriage clock, new questions arise about what really happened on that expedition—and the fates of the men involved.

There are many new questions, but few answers. Most chapters are flashbacks to historical events, but two modern-day characters, Nelson and Fay, surface regularly to frame the historical anecdotes without quite tying them together. The best parts of Minds of Winter are the accounts of various expeditions sent to search for the Franklin Expedition and the fabled Northern Passage.

The strongest chapters are those most rooted in history, but some passages are more effective than others. The first occurs in 1841 as Sir John Franklin’s niece, Sophia, opens a dance. While she spends time with Captains Ross and Crozier (the eventual captain of the H.M.S. Terror), there’s more detail in her character than almost any other in the novel. Her passage closely follows her inner turmoil and excitement. Unlike other sections that stuff in years of biographical details and character development, Sophia’s chapter describes a single night. It’s a beautiful and immersive scene that allows the reader to see these men from an outsider’s perspective.

Other characters and voices are captured well too, but the scene frequently changes just as their story reaches its climax or introduces an intriguing detail. Minds of Winter is ambitious; many chapters raise the curtain on a new set of characters and the reader must trust that these characters are relevant to the overall narrative. Often, the connections are tenuous and slow to appear amidst an onslaught of background information and context. It was tough seeing one story end just as I became acquainted with its style and peripheral characters, only to be introduced to another group from another decade. Seeds of a conspiracy are planted, but come to nothing. It’s true that open endings can spur a fun debate, but this ending is too open for my taste.

Some people will really enjoy this book and there’s an easy way to ensure you will too: Do research before reading, or keep a search engine up. Familiarize yourself with the names of the Franklin Expedition and some of the key players in the later search parties up through Amundsen’s flight over the North Pole. If you know the names of key characters, the blend of fact/fiction is impressive. More than anything, this dictated my enjoyment of a chapter: familiar names elicited curiosity and excitement while unfamiliar names added to the quagmire of places, dates, and names—so many names!—of people, cities, ships, waterways, etc. Being able to appreciate the blend of fact and fiction is key to appreciating this book.

Overall: 3.8 The mechanics and writing are sound, but the story meanders in ways I found difficult to follow. The Nelson/Fay chapters fall flat when surrounded by the adventures of more dynamic, adventuresome people.

Translation: Research a bit, then read the book. I plan to add this book to my list of books to reread in 5-10 years. Knowing what to expect, I imagine I’ll enjoy it much more.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus (via NetGalley)
Image Credit: Goodreads

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