Set in the late 19th century when the world’s population of whales is in decline, a whaling ship is outfitted and sent into far northern waters in search of a few of the beasts to fill their hold with oil. It’s an odd journey — late in the season for finding whales so far north — and yet the ship pushes farther and farther northward at grave (or is it planned?) risk of being locked in the ice for the winter.
On board the ship are a (perhaps typically) motley crew, but two characters are key to the story: a psychopathic harpooner named Drax and a laudanum-addicted ship’s surgeon called Sumner, our protagonist. Sumner, a former military officer, is an unlikely hire for the rough conditions of a whaling voyage, and many suspect, rightly so, that he is escaping an unsavory past. Drax is just all-around bad business, but he’s equally wily and his good harpooning skills give him the cover of a valuable crew member. It’s never a mystery to the reader what these men are doing on the ship and why, but we watch as they begin to figure out each other and the real nature of the doomed voyage.
There’s murder and blood, guts, and gore aplenty in this book. The business of whaling was stinky and brutal enough by itself, and we are treated to graphic descriptions of not only whale butchery but decomposing whale butchery. Not to mention the fun things that the surgeon takes care of: venereal disease, lancing abscesses, bashed in skulls, and so forth. McGuire is careful to exploit all our senses, too. Drax is required to drop his pants for a venereal disease inspection and is described as giving off the stench of “urine and potted meat.” Animals die when their heart blood shoots out in “thick purple gouts.” You get the idea. There’s nary a page without a spurt of blood, a fleck brains, or an ooze of red-green pus.
I don’t think the book was gratuitously brutal. The kinds of callous butchery and cruelty that was inflicted on animals (whales, seals, polar bears, and not in this book, but buffalo, etc.) during the novel’s time period and in the book itself is equally practiced on the human animal. It’s only violence on children or baby animals that evoke sympathy in the novel, at least with some characters and chiefly Sumner. So despite the brutality, there is a conscience in the novel that drives the resolution.
I won’t spoil the end, but Sumner transforms, as protagonists tend to do, by the end of the story. I keep wondering if it’s for the better or he just become a more savvy player of his worse inclinations. But that’s about the only speculative thread in this otherwise tightly plotted and very satisfying novel.