The Arctic Fury is a surprisingly beautiful, moving, and intense story of an unexpected mismatched group of women who embark upon a journey of a lifetime. I'll be honest when I say that this book ended up being pretty much not at all what I expected or what I initially wanted, but it still ended up being a story that I couldn't put down and kept me anxiously awaiting every new twist.
In 1845, the ships Erebus and Terror, part of the infamous Franklin Expedition, and their crew were lost to the ravages of the Arctic. The Arctic Fury tells the "what-if" story of what might've happened if Lady Jane Franklin, wife to Captain Sir John Franklin, decided to hire a band of women to take a new expedition to the Arctic to discover the true fate of her husband and his crew. As a huge lover of survival stories, exploration stories, and Arctic/polar settings, this sounded like everything I could have possibly wanted and more--and for the most part, it was! There were just a couple plot points that weren't quite what I expected.
There are twelve women hired to embark upon this expedition with guide Virginia Reeve as their leader. Although we get occasional instances of various POVs from other characters throughout the story, our main perspective comes from Virginia and captures the many obstacles that occur as she agrees to lead this expedition, both major and minor. Virginia was an especially interesting character to follow because she's not exactly the most likable or charismatic person, or even the best leader, to be frank. However, there's still something compelling about her and her determination and commitment to her job as leader. Virginia is not one to take unnecessary risks, nor is she going to do anything that knowingly puts the rest of the expedition in danger, and I really came to respect Virginia for her actions despite the fact that her inexperience at leading and dealing with a group of women who have plenty of conflicts and individual needs often fell a bit short. I think a big part of this story in general was observing how a group of women with individual strengths can work together--or not--for a bigger adventure than any could have managed.
The rest of the characters were all surprisingly distinct from one another and I managed to mostly remember who each character was (and for a cast of twelve characters, that's kudas to Macallister!). I enjoyed how truly diverse this group of women was and how Macallister managed to give a believable, compelling background to each one. Some of the women had attitudes that I could hardly stand, while others were much meeker, but all of them were unpredictable and brought something special to the story. I appreciated that each character really seemed to have a useful role in the story, which avoided the 'extraneous character' issue that often pops up with large casts.
As mentioned in the summary, the story also alternates between the time of the expedition and the present where Virginia is now on trial for the "murder" of one of the women who did not return from the expedition. I wasn't really sure what to expect from this split timeline, but it ended up being surprisingly riveting. I didn't really like that this of course meant that we mostly know who survived the expedition, but I did enjoy how Macallister mirrored the messy falling out of the trial with the messy disaster of the expedition. I can't go into too much detail about some points, but I felt that overall this split timeline created a stark contrast in narrative that allows the reader to experience the tense, chaotic, and brutal chapters in the harsh Arctic with the equally tense scenes at the court trial--there are similarities, but the tone in each is overall so different that it felt like a bit of a breather when switching between either section.
Some of my problems with this story mostly arise due to my own expectations, so they aren't really things that make me want to actively lower my rating, but they are still prominent and/or frustrating enough that I feel I should mention them. There are a couple, but I'll highlight the two biggest issues in this review. The first is that the entire setup in which Virginia is hired by Lady Jane Franklin to find Sir John Franklin was just so odd. By the end of the story, it's explained why it was setup in the way it was, but I think from the start it set up this expedition to be a bit of a disaster. Lady Jane Franklin essentially demands anonymity on her part and refuses to have her name attached to this expedition in any way, and Virginia is basically given a list of women who will be in her crew (along with two empty spaces for her to choose her own) with no say or background knowledge of them. For an expedition of this magnitude or dangers involved, this makes no sense to me at all if you actually want it to be successful.
My next issue has to do with the characters themselves. I understand that when you throw together a group of strangers there are going to be conflicts of personality and interest, but one would think that people going on a journey to a brutal place where countless people have lost their lives would consider that unity and working together would be one of the single most important things to ensure. Yet there is constant strife that derails this journey on more than one occasion in a myriad of different ways. I felt that this spelled doom from the start, whether they ended up being "successful" or not (which I won't spoil if they were or not, I promise!) and left me feeling a bit frustrated. I wanted to see what an actual trip to the Arctic with an all-woman crew might look like and how they might succeed and/or fail in ways different than the other expeditions lacking women. But because of the weird setup for the expedition and the strong conflicts that were pre-existing between some of the women, I feel like I never got to actually explore that idea and therefore missed out on a potentially incredibly story.
I know the last two things I mention are fairly negative, but despite those I really did enjoy this story and would still highly recommend it. My frustrations were present throughout the book, but at the same time I was able to put them aside and enjoy this book with an open mind that allowed me to thoroughly enjoy it. The pacing is steady, if a bit slow at times (it really takes forever to even get started on the expedition), and Macallister has a beautiful form of prose that is at times bleak, at times beautiful, and altogether stunning to read. I was particularly moved by the last couple of chapters and felt some deep stirrings of emotion at her writing.
Overall, I ended up giving The Arctic Fury four stars. I know I had quite a few issues with the plot itself, but in the end I really did like this book and I look back on it with a strong sense of enjoyment and appreciation for the messages Macallister included. It's not what I expected or necessarily wanted, but it was still a fascinating story and exploration of a premise that I didn't even know I desperately wanted. If you're looking for a book that really focuses on the survival aspect of traveling into the north, this is not it. But it is still a great story of resilience, struggle, and adventure. Pick this one up if you like tense court trials, adventures, and high stakes!