Marcus Sedgwick’s top 10 tales from cold climes

Cool off from our roasting summer weather with some genuinely chilling stories selected by the author of My Swordhand Is Singing

Arctic exploring ship reaches the Northwest Passage

Ice cream … an Arctic exploring ship reaches the Northwest Passage.

Since Floodland won the Branford Boase award for the best first children’s novel of 2000, Marcus Sedgwick’s books have been shortlisted for many awards, including the Guardian children’s fiction award, the Carnegie Medal and the Edgar Allan Poe award.

His latest novel, Revolver, is a tense psychological drama set in the Arctic willderness.

“I’ve always loved books set in very cold places, and I’ve written quite a few myself; I’m not sure where the obsession came from but I do know it’s one I haven’t shaken in over 10 years of writing about and travelling in cold countries. So if the heatwave of the early summer returns and you need something to cool your fevered brow, why not try a novel set in sub-zero climes? Each of the books below share that wonderful ability of making you feel as if you’re right there.”

1 The People’s Act of Love by James Meek

Beautifully written, timeless and jaw-droppingly shocking at times, Meek’s novel of the collision of a cannibalistic convict on the run from a Siberian labour camp with an obscure angel cult in the chaos of the Russian civil war will leave you chilled in every sense.

2 White Fang by Jack London

Although he is better known for The Call of the Wild, I prefer this story (an inversion of the other) in which London describes the adventures of a wild wolf dog, a half-breed who is eventually tamed and brought to civilisation. Set against the Klondike Gold Rush at the close of the 19th century, much of the book was based on London’s own experiences in the Yukon, and remains fascinating reading for that alone.

3 The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

There’s something fitting about the connection between crime novels and cold climates, and this is my favourite of Mankell’s Wallander stories. Set in Sweden and Latvia during the winter of 1991, Mankell skilfully depicts the gulf between these Baltic neighbours – one modern and liberal, the other bleak and dangerous and struggling to emerge from its Soviet past.

4 Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Woodrell’s fourth novel is set in the Ozark Mountains, a desolate, backwoods kind of place inhabited by characters who’d certainly be playing banjo on the front porch if only it weren’t so damn cold outside. Woodrell’s hero is one of the very best: a frail 16-year-old girl named Ree who tackles the fallout when her drug-dealing father jumps bail, putting the family at risk of homelessness, and worse.

5 Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills

Mills’s strange parallel of Scott and Amundsen’s race for the south pole, in which two teams of explorers race across the ice to the Agreed Furthest Point from civilisation, will not be to everyone’s taste – but for those who like their fiction to surprise, the twist will leave you not only shivering, but shaking your head in wonder.

6 The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

One of McCaughrean’s best novels, this strange, twisting story takes us on an Antarctic adventure with Sym, a quiet and unsure girl, whose hero, Captain “I may be some time” Oates, is her constant imagined companion throughout the book, moving, speaking and guiding her. It’s an amazing achievement, and on you’ll feel the cold at your back all the way.

7 Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg

A modern classic. Smilla, of joint Inuit and Danish heritage is convinced that there is something wrong with the death of a neighbour’s child, who fell from the snowy rooftop of their Copenhagen home. Her suspicions take her to Greenland on an icebreaker, where she tries to unravel an old conspiracy, and where the reader is treated to the bleakness of the Greenland ice sheet.

8 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

Rather unfairly deemed a second cousin in the series, the film version of Fleming’s OHMSS still has its good points (including the best soundtrack of any Bond film) and yet, as so often, the novel gives so much more. As Bond passes himself off as an expert in heraldry to investigate Blofeld’s Alpine lair, you can almost hear the swish of skis cut into the crust of the snow as the pages turn.

9 The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The second novel in Cooper’s eponymous quintet is by far the most atmospheric, thanks to the wonder of the setting: the English countryside in the deep winter. It’s here that Will learns of his heritage, and the part he has to play in the battle against the Dark. I still can’t hear a rook call in the snow without feeling just a little nervous …

10 South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton

Okay, so this one isn’t a novel, but when it comes to describing what it’s like to try to survive the harshest of climates, Shackleton’s account of his 1914 Antarctic expedition is unsurpassed. Just don’t read it after Magnus Mills’ Explorers – it’s like watching John Boorman’s Excalibur after Monty Python and the Holy Grail.


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