Everland (27 March 2014) by Rebecca Hunt
It's an Antarctic island that gives Everland its near-fantastical title, a frozen wasteland at the heart of two adventures taking place a hundred years apart. In 1913, three Navy men volunteer to explore the island and survey its unique wildlife. They are devious First Mate Napps, robust Millet-Bass and the meek (and evocatively named) Dinners. Reluctant to trust each other before the mission even begins, they are thrown into peril almost immediately. In 2013, their story has become the stuff of legend, immortalised in biographies and film. It's as a symbolic marking of the event's centenary that three new explorers are sent to study Everland: hardened researcher Decker, nervous scientist Brix, and their bitchy field assistant, Jess. Expecting their tasks to be manageable, they are shocked when Everland proves to be just as inhospitable as it was for their 1913 counterparts. As tempers fray and tensions rise, their situation starts to mirror that of their predecessors - sometimes in obvious ways, while other parallels are more surprising.
I got off to a bit of a slow start with Everland, which is hampered early on by its commitment to effectively portraying the unwelcoming nature of the Antarctic settings. The reality of these places, romantic-looking as they may be in photographs, is unbelievably bleak, harsh and lonely, and Hunt does a great job of conveying this to the reader - so great that it can be a bit dull to read about the repetitive nature of the teams' daily schedules. However, once I had warmed to the characters (which didn't happen immediately; rather, it developed slowly as they were given more to do) the pace of my reading quickened. By the time I was about two-thirds of the way through, I was so desperate to know the ending that I ended up staying awake until the early hours of the morning in order to finish reading the book.
Aside from the use of a dual-focused narrative, this book is very different from Hunt's first novel, Mr. Chartwell. Where many of the characters in Chartwell felt flimsy, here they are expertly fleshed out as the story unfolds, defying what you think you know about them - Jess in particular makes a perfect transition from what could be a one-dimensional antagonist to a much more rounded, human character. There is a supernatural undertone to Everland - the island has an eerie quality which seems to be more than just a figment of its residents' imaginations; certain strange events are never given a rational explanation. Don't expect this book to turn into a ghost story or a fantasy, though. I hoped for a while that it would exploit the naturally eerie location in the same way as Michelle Paver's excellent Dark Matter, but this is not the direction the narrative goes in.
In what is a much more accomplished piece of work than her debut, Hunt succeeds in making you care about these people and feel invested in their fate, as well as in crafting a wonderfully menacing setting. It's not perfect - it took a while for me to feel that the plot was compelling (although the final third is enormously so), I would have preferred more to have been made of the 'unexplained' aspects of both ventures (but that's a personal preference), and I also have a feeling the story may not end up being particularly memorable. However, it slowly coaxed me into fascination and ultimately kept me up all night, and that's got to deserve some kind of recognition.
I received an advance review copy of Everland from the publisher through NetGalley.
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