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All the White Spaces by Ally WilkesUK edition3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from Powells“Great God, this is an awful place,” said British explorer Robert Falcon Scott on his disastrous 1912 expedition to the South Pole, and Ally Wilkes has one of her characters say something almost identical in her absorbing alt-history horror debut All the White Spaces. If you’re going to write a horror story set in Antarctica, you pretty much have me at hello. And this isn’t just because, like anyone of taste and refinement, I have an enduring love of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

I’ve been a South Pole fanboy since I was a teenager, thanks not only to Carpenter’s film but the Masterpiece Theater miniseries The Last Place on Earth, based on Roland Huntford’s myth-shattering book about the race to the Pole in 1912 between Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. From there I read Huntford’s book, which remains my absolute favorite work of nonfiction history to this day. I also devoured other books about the last great era of Polar exploration, including Ernest Shackleton’s own memoir, South, and The Worst Journey in the World, a firsthand account by one of Scott’s own men, Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

So, speaking as an Antarcti-geek, how well does All the White Spaces work? Not half bad, if I do say so. Sure, it has its share of debut novel hiccups, the most obvious of which is overlength. But mostly, this combination of high-seas adventure, survival horror, and coming-of-age story manages to hit its marks. Horror readers hoping for the kind of in-your-face shocks of The Thing or At the Mountains of Madness or even Dan Simmons’ The Terror might feel let down. The horror here is a cold slow burn, possibly a bit too slow. But it’s a good thing we’re not getting just another creature feature, nor another imitative “Oh no, who can I trust?” story. The book does deliver, without pulling a bait-and-switch or collapsing into sheer silliness.

It’s 1920 in an alternate history timeline in which neither Ernest Shackleton nor, presumably, Scott or Amundsen existed, and the deep Antarctic remains unexplored and the Pole undiscovered. The Great War has happened, however, and Jo Morgan’s two older brothers, Rufus and Francis, went off to fight and are not coming home. Jo decides to honor their memory by sneaking off, with the help of working class friend and surviving veteran of the trenches Harry Cooper, and joining the Antarctic expedition led by polar hero James Randall. Randall’s fame is on the wane, as the societal trauma of the Great War has sapped the public’s interest in the romance of exploration. Randall is also leaving for the south dangerously late in the season. So Harry easily buys his passage, while Jo stows away.

To the age-old trope of a young girl disguising herself as a boy and running away from home, Wilkes adds the element of a young trans man coming into his true identity. Jo has never been just a tomboy, and has always chafed at, if not outright resented, the way the world is offered up to young men as an endless pageant of heroic adventure, while social norms require young women to be proper ladies and homebodies at all times. It isn’t until running away, getting a haircut, and dressing as Jonathan that he finally feels as if he’s become the person he always should have been.

The first third of the book is some absolutely smashing high-seas adventure, very old-fashioned in tone, with situations going from bad to worse for Randall and his crew as their ship, the Fortitude, makes its way south. Everything about the expedition and its voyage feels completely real. Jonathan is discovered, but soon accepted by Randall and the other hardened old soldiers on board, in sharp contrast to Tarlington, the expedition’s scientific officer, barely out of his teens himself, and whose conscientious objector status in the war has earned him the mistrust and derision of the other men.

I’m fine with the choice Wilkes has made regarding Jonathan’s character and identity, but it does lead to some unaddressed issues in the narrative. While Harry helps cover for Jonathan by loaning him an extra shaving kit that he pretends to use, what is Jonathan doing about menstruation? On a months-long sea voyage it’s going to be an issue, but Wilkes never mentions it, perhaps out of a desire to make Jonathan’s identity one ingredient of the story but not the entire center of it. But little details like these do matter. In her YA historical fantasy Walk on Earth a Stranger, in which a teen girl joins a westward wagon train disguised as a boy, Rae Carson makes a point of addressing how her heroine keeps her cycle a secret.

Anyway, I’m probably spending too long discussing this, but that’s critique for you. Most of you are interested in how All the White Spaces works as horror. While I have to say that the book’s approach won’t be to everyone’s taste, I admired how skillfully Wilkes walks a tightrope, revealing just enough while still leaving room for the reader to decide whether we’re dealing with an actually haunted continent, something in the men’s minds, or some completely unique kind of malevolent force altogether. The Fortitude travels south under the shadow of alarming news about a previous German expedition that has been missing for two years. Once our crew finds the Germans’ old huts, absolutely deserted, with the frozen bodies of their dogs still in their kennels, we know bad things are going to happen. And happen they do. All I will say about the story’s supernatural horror elements is that this book did something very like what I was hoping S.A. Barnes’ Dead Silence would do.

A big problem is that the book takes too long to get to the good stuff. The midsection needs serious tightening. But once we get to the final scenes, where Wilkes spares us nothing in depicting the sheer misery of these men clinging to life in the unforgiving darkness of Antarctic winter, the story will absolutely have you frozen in your seat.