It's 1948, and for the first time, explorers will stand on the North Pole. Among those on the flight is an elderly British woman once called the Snow Queen. Flora first crossed the Arctic Circle at age 12, when her newly widowed father took her with him on his annual whaling voyage. The rough conditions and the freezing cold might have deterred a weaker woman, but Flora was enthralled; growing up, she heads to university, determined to return to northern Greenland as an explorer. When her first romance fails and her lover, American geologist Jakob de Beyn, leaves the Arctic for a more conventional life, Flora marries a fellow explorer who is crippled in a terrible accident. Unwilling to stay at home and be his nursemaid, the unconventional Flora becomes one of the first truly modern women, leading her own team north, writing about her discoveries, and not marrying. Penney does a masterly job of melding Flora's story with the more factual accounts of polar expeditions, and many of her characters are taken from the pages of history. VERDICT Penney's third novel (after The Tenderness of Wolves; The Invisible Ones) is a gripping tale about the men and women who were driven to conquer the Arctic. Bound to appeal to admirers of Eowyn Ivey's To the Bright Edge of the World.—Jane Henriksen Baird, Anchorage P.L., AK
A woman attempts to throw off Victorian convention as an explorer—and a lover.Flora Mackie's upbringing is unconventional, to say the least; after her mother dies when she's 12, her father, a whaling captain, brings his daughter on his travels toward the North Pole, where she learns the way of ships and navigation by stars. It's no wonder that when she chooses to study meteorology at university she does so with an eye to returning north to pursue her own goals at the earliest opportunity. Temporarily distracted by a tempestuous romance with a fellow student, however, it soon seems that Flora's desire to be a scientist and explorer will always war with affairs of the heart and the body. Indeed, for most of the novel, Flora's travels and studies seem to rank secondary to the desires of her body, and as she is schooled in the art of sex and the complications of love by her husband and lovers, there are a lot of graphic sex scenes. And herein lies the problem with Penney's (The Invisible Ones, 2012, etc.) novel: while there's no reason that Flora, as a multidimensional woman, shouldn't have a flourishing and liberated personal life, this side of the plot quickly overshadows the unique and beautiful side that describes her experiences in the exotic north. Then again, there are some lovely moments of prose, such as, "To winter's home; the whiteness that is always there, falling with infinite slowness, infinite patience, into the sea." The descriptions of the ice, of the endless nights and days that characterize the north, are beautiful; if only they hadn't been just backdrops to assignation after assignation. For a novel about "blackmail, lies, murder," it's rather light on the intrigue and heavy on the petting.
Winner of the 2017 Wilbur and Niso Smith Adventure Writing Prize for Best Published Novel
"Penney's prose is rapturous, whether she is describing the 'overwhelmingly richglorious and unnecessary' landscape, or in her detailed and richly imagined passages on the attraction and intimacy between Flora and Jakob. By telling their story through recollection and the letters that they send, Penney imparts an additional layer of suspense, with neither the reader nor the characters knowing what may come, resulting in an exciting and transportive novel."
"A fascinating, mysterious historical novel about a female explorer in a world of men at the end of the nineteenth century. Under a Pole Star is an adventure, an illicit romance, and a life-defying exploration of a land most of us know nothing about. The contrast of the lovers' blazing relationship set against the frigid Arctic and the secrets that propel the narrative will keep readers riveted in this hard-to-forget, mesmerizing tale!"
M.J. Rose, New York Times bestselling author
"Serious issues like gender bias and exploitation are adeptly handled, and the icy Arctic setting comes alive in passages of shimmering beauty . . . An exceptional epic about an unconventional woman's life and loves."
Booklist (Starred Review)
"Penney does a masterly job of melding Flora's story with the more factual accounts of polar expeditions, and many of her characters are taken from the pages of history . . . A gripping tale about the men and women who were driven to conquer the Arctic. Bound to appeal to admirers of Eowyn Ivey's To the Bright Edge of the World."Library Journal (Starred Review)
"Penney makes it clear that whatever their flaws, these early explorers, even the least likable and most desperate, had dreams and courage and a mystical pull toward the north that was almost as strong as the magnetism of the Pole itself. That's the true heart of this immersive novel. If you are fond of boundary-shattering journeysgeographical, sexual, and scientificyou'll have a great ride."
"A panoramic historical epic and an unforgettable love story from the author of the Costa-winning The Tenderness of Wolves, for fans of Sarah Perry, Jessie Burton, and Donna Tartt." Princeton Book Review
"A tale of foul play and doomed love . . . It is a tribute to Penney's superlative descriptive skills that the book's erotic charge is so startlingly effective, and that her icy landscapes cast such a lasting, almost hallucinatory spell."
"What has marked Penney out from the start is her ability to make her extensive historical research come alive."Sunday Herald
"With the nights drawing in and the temperature beginning to plummet, there's no better time to curl up with this stunningly evocative tale about an intrepid young female explorer. As immersive as it is mesmerizing, this is a novel that you won't ever forget."Heat
"This is an epic love story set against the forbidding beauty of snow meadows. A perfect winter read."Red
"A beautifully written tale, elegant and well-observed, full of powerful descriptions of a dazzling landscape."S magazine, Sunday Express
"A terrific and beautifully written yarn that will make readers yearn to travel and fall in love in a cold climate."The Times
"Penney works hard to fill her canvas with color and conviction."The Sunday Times
"A classic Bildungsroman . . . Penney explores themes of love, desire, companionship, and the difference between the three."Times Literary Supplement
"Against the backdrop of the Arctic Ocean, explorer Flora meets Jakob, a member of a rival expedition. Science gives way to love with devastating results."Grazia
"A most interesting tale of Inuit history and the rivalry between Arctic explorers with just a touch of romance. Penney brings to life this realistic, enjoyable story of reconnoitering the Arctic and of women's issues in the late 1800s."Karen Bakshoian, Letterpress Books
"Nobody does cold as well as Stef Penney! Her latest book chronicles exploration in the Arctic Circle, where the frigid weather was in stark contrast with the passions of explorers in search of knowledge, adventure, the North Pole, and fame."Sally Wizik Willis, Beagle and Wolf Books & Bindery
"This is what you want from Grade A-plus historical fiction: well-examined characters, a little gore; a feeling of modernity; a hearty well of research; and my favorite, a terrific woman scientist who has guts and foibles and isn't your perfect English rose. It's one of those cereal books (my own coinage, i.e., a book you have to eat cereal while you read it because you can't put it down long enough to cook)."Erica Eisdorfer, Flyleaf Books
"This novel of a woman's quest to be first into this harsh environment blends fierce feelings, rivalries, and secrets. Stef has given us an amazing description of what makes an explorer explore and how they endure. This is a novel of adventure, love, and challenge. Have a blanket nearby as the cold will reach out to you as you join these expeditions and get into this great read."Gloria Tiller, Kazoo Books
"Under A Pole Star is fascinating, and every scene is utterly captivating; Penney's descriptions seem so real it is like you are there! I loved this book."Cheryl Kravetz, Classic Bookshop
"Give me a book with snow in it! Penney's excellent descriptions of the blinding cold and dark winter nights set the stage for the explorers and scientists who sought new discoveries. I loved the adventure and the people involved."Becci West, Rainy Day Books
"With clear, bright prose, Stef Penney unlocks a world that is sensual, absorbing, and full of vivid characters and places. Under A Pole Star is everything you want a novel to beit carries you along smoothly and quickly, and it lingers with you after you've finished."Kate Morning, Magers & Quinn Booksellers
"Those fortunate enough to read Under A Pole Star will experience an intensity of adventure coupled with equally compelling descriptions of the vast and varied landscape. Penney's details of exploration and survival are a thrill. The scattering of Inuit words (glossary is lovely) transports the reader to a place and timethe golden age of exploration showcasing the men and women who were driven to conquer the Atlantic. To think of one so young, so vulnerable taking on the largest island in the world! Adventure at its finest with strong historical merit to boot."Cynthia Callander, Vero Beach Book Center
Praise for The Tenderness of Wolves
"A suspenseful epic, offering a leitmotif of constant unease . . . impressive."The Guardian
"Penney's absorbing, quietly convincing narrative illuminates the characters, each a kind of outcast, through whose complex viewpoints this dense, many-layered story is told."Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"A first-rate gripper with a notably sensual as well as psychological understanding of its main characters."Globe and Mail