Frozen Solid, by James M. Tabor
When a scientist at the South Pole's Amundsen Scott Research Station dies mysteriously, CDC microbiologist Hallie Leland is sent to complete the unfinished research. She finds herself in an isolated, alien world surrounded by violent weather and subzero temperatures, an environment that puts severe stress on the mind and body. Her job is to dive beneath the ice to recover an extremophile, a life-form living in extreme hostile conditions, which possesses unique traits. Before Hallie can begin work, three more woman die at the station. As weather closes in and the station shuts down for “winterover”, a period of eight months when the station is completely cut off from the outside world, Hallie finds herself on her own attempting to unravel the mystery of how and why her predecessor died – because she might be next. The only help she can expect sits thousands of miles away, in Washington D.C., as agency director Don Bernard and special operative Wil Bowman, who has a special relationship with Hallie, pick up on clues of something shadowy going on at the station.
“Frozen Solid” is actually the second novel in a series featuring Hallie Leland. The first book is “The Deep Zone”. Fortunately, knowledge of the first is not necessary to enjoy the second book. Hallie is a good, solid protagonist. She isn't a nerd or a shrinking violet. Intelligent, resourceful, and loaded with guts and stamina, she is the rare credible female action protagonist. Hallie isn't superhuman. She makes mistakes and pays for them. I only wish the story was a bit stronger to support Hallie.
The novel is primarily a mystery/adventure tale so Tabor took a few liberties with the science. For example, the plot involves a conspiracy to use the station to create, test, and then spread a plague designed to change the world. Fine as long as Tabor doesn't try to explain it. Then he descends into some serious technobabble. Fortunately, this happens only a few times, not enough to spoil the fun, although the book remains heavy on the jargon, which he gets right most of the time. The real problem lay in uneven pacing, subplots that did not add to the story (I'm looking at you Barnard and Bowman), inexplicable transitions, flat secondary characters, a few too many coincidences, and a lackluster ending. Most of all, there was something running under the text that did not appeal to me. Something in the treatment of Hallie and her character felt jarring, as if instead of watching a real person I was presented with a trick pony doing stunts. I would have to reread the book to pin down what bothered me.
The complaint about uneven pacing might seem strange given how hard the novel tries make things move. That is my point. The story races ahead so fast, there's never room to breathe. Even the prose is lean, trimmed as if by a razor, leaving muscle as well as fat on the cutting room floor. Everything in the novel, including the characters, exist to advance the plot. Characters appear not to add color or the like but to serve a purpose, contributing to a headlong velocity of the story that can wear on a reader.
The effort to streamlime and condense the story did not end with the prose. Stylistically, it annoyed me that while each chapter ended on a cliffhanger, you seldom got to see how it was resolved. The next chapter would start with the person explaining how they escaped the cliffhanger instead of showing it. The first time it happened it took me aback and I thought the author had wanted to do something different – until it kept reoccurring. The ending had a similar tell but do not show format, which severely lessened the impact.
I will not spoil the reader about the goal of the conspiracy. While it touches on a serious topic, the method Triage chose to use was horrifying and silly.
On the debit side, “Frozen Solid” is an engaging beach-blanket summer thriller. Tabor does a good job painting the weather at the South Pole as a character and a threat in its own right, generating some of the best parts of the book when Hallie struggles to survive in it. There was enough to keep me reading and turning pages. It is a fine thriller despite the many dings I give it. I do not consider it a great or memorable thriller. But if the reader is in the market for a claustrophobic, chilling (pun intended) tale of survival mixed in with global conspiracies and a murder mystery set in an unusual location, “Frozen Solid” is a good book to consider.