8 Great Books Set in the Arctic That We Love

8 Great Books Set in the Arctic That We Love

Tuesday, 5 October, 2021

The Arctic — made up of bits of Russia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and the northern tips of Scandinavian countries — has been like a siren, calling adventurers north for centuries.

But she’s a fickle mistress, and expeditions have been fraught with peril, often ending in death or disappearances. There’s no denying its otherwordly beauty or the appeal of its animal life — puffins and polar bears, narwhals and wolves — that’s cute in reverse proportion to its danger.

So why not brew a cup of something warm, be grateful you’re not aboard a ship trapped in the ice, and cozy up to stories that embrace the cold, the snow, the mystery, and the menace of the Arctic.

Here are eight books set in the Arctic that took us there on the page, including lyrical nonfiction, coming-of-age stories set in Russia and Sweden, adventure tales set in Alaska and the Arctic Circle, a deep dive into mythology, and a ghost story that would make the bravest soul shake in their fur-lined boots.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Arctic: Otherworldly Beauty That Might Kill You.


The Arctic Fury - Greer Macallister

The Arctic Fury
> Greer Macallister

In 1846, Captain John Franklin commanded two ships — the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror — on an expedition to the Arctic to navigate and map the Northwest Passage. Tragically, the ships were stranded in the ice, the men abandoned ship, and none of them was ever heard from again. This thrilling historical novel tells that story from a completely different perspective: a group of adventurous women.

It’s the 1850s, and Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of the missing captain, hires an all-girl crew to find her husband — or to at least find out what happened to him. The leader is Virginia, an experienced California trail guide. She’s made of pretty stern stuff, but she’s reeling from a recent emotional blow. And, when the story opens, she’s on trial, accused of murdering one of the women from her Arctic expedition.

The story alternates between the trial in Boston and events on the Arctic ice, slowly revealing devastating secrets, surprising plot twists, heartbreaking tragedy — and putting us in the company of women who crush society’s expectations of what they can do.

Author Greer Macallister delivers historical fiction that’s taut with suspense and grounded in history with tantalizing answers to the question, ‘What if?’ {more}

Brooks drew a map from a hidden pocket and unrolled it on the table between them. He traced the route with a blunt fingertip as he went, hundreds of impossible miles streaming by in barely a sentence. ‘Train to Buffalo, canoes to Sault Ste. Marie, transport overland to Moose Factory, and a topsail schooner up the west side of Hudson Bay to Repulse Bay, arriving in late July. From there, you’ll make the overland trek to the search area. That’s King William’s Land, specifically Victory Point. That leaves you four months to trek in, search, and trek out before winter.’

‘Easy as falling off a log,’ said Virginia breezily. — Greer Macallister

Arctic Dreams - Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams
> Barry Lopez

In this 1986 National Book Award winner, author Barry Lopez does everything he can to transport you into the ice and wind with polar bears, narwhals, and 1000 miles of sea and glaciers. Snowflakes drift across the pages as you read.

Lopez spent five years exploring the Arctic as a field biologist. This immersive work weaves science, history, and his own travels — all told with keen insight and the gift of a storyteller’s sense of detail and drama. Each chapter dives into a different aspect of the Arctic: polar bears, musk ox, aurora borealis, the sea.

As the history and culture of indigenous peoples unfolds — along with the narratives of doomed polar explorers — Lopez strives to understand the mystic and irresistible pull of the Arctic. He explores how land shapes people, inside and out; the way our stories and dreams are informed by the landscapes we’ve seen. The Arctic is rich in imagery and metaphor and illusion — and cold, hard reality. Metaphor and story run delightfully rampant. {more}

There are no shadows. Space has no depth. There is no horizon. The bottom of the world disappears. On foot, you stumble about in missed stair-step fashion. It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general. — Barry Lopez

Dark Matter - Michelle Paver

Dark Matter
> Michelle Paver

In the vein of tales like The Turn of the Screw and The Tell-Tale Heart, this eerie ghost story turns on an essential question: Is our narrator haunted by a supernatural being, or is he slowly losing his connection to reality?

The story opens in London, January 1937. The threatening fog of World War II hangs over the city. Our hero Jack is 28 years old, poor, lonely, and in desperate need of a major change. When he’s offered a job as a radio operator on an expedition to the Arctic, he says yes. But from the outset, he has some hesitations. The other four members of the team are amateur explorers from posh families. And he is very much not that. Not any more.

He sets aside his fears and sets sail for adventure. But shortly after the team arrives at their destination for the year, tragedy strikes. One by one, Jack’s companions are forced to leave. And he’s left all alone. In the Arctic. For the winter. The long, dark, frigid, lonely winter.

Taut and atmospheric, this is a ghost story that winds chilly tendrils around your heart and slowly ratchets up the tension until its pitch-perfect ending. {more}

According to the ship’s thermometer, it’s only a couple of degrees below freezing, but it was colder on the ice. My breath rasped in my throat. I felt the skin of my face tighten. And for the first time in my life, I was aware of cold as a menace. A physical threat. The ice was solid beneath my boots – and yet, I thought, a few inches below me, there’s water so cold that if I fell in, I’d be dead within minutes. And the only thing that’s keeping me away from it is… more water. — Michelle Paver

The Wolf in the Whale - Jordanna Max Brodsky

The Wolf in the Whale
> Jordanna Max Brodsky

If you’re interested in the challenges and dangers faced by a tough little girl who walked the Arctic 1000 years ago, this novel is for you. A tale of the clash between Inuit tradition and Viking mythology, this gripping story weaves high drama, grand adventure, and quiet moments that change the world.

This story follows a young Inuit shaman named Omat. From a tender age, her grandfather teaches her how to use the spirits of the land to protect and guide her people. When a rival tribe shows up, Omat is abducted (or, perhaps, more accurately, forfeited) into enemy hands. And just when you think things can’t get worse for our heroine, the Vikings show up.

They arrive with wooden boats and metal tools and cooked food; to them, the Inuit are vicious animals. The war begins between the Inuit and their spirit guides versus the Norse and their fierce gods.

This is an epic story with larger-than-life characters — and it’s a coming-of-age story. The tale of a determined Inuit girl to understand both the war of feelings inside her and the war waged in the world around her. {more}

There are few sounds at night on the frozen sea besides the roar of the wind. No plants to rustle, no waves to crash upon the shore, no birds to caw. The white owl flies on hushed wings. The white fox walks with silent tread. Even Inuit move as softly as spirits, the snow too hard to yield and crunch beneath our boots. We hear little, but what we do hear is vital: the exploding breath of a surfacing seal, the shift and crack of drifting ice. But in the forest there is always sound. The trees, even in their shrouds of snow, are alive, and their voices — groans, creaks, screams — never cease. — Jordanna Max Brodsky

Good Morning, Midnight - Lily Brooks-Dalton

Good Morning, Midnight
> Lily Brooks-Dalton

Beautifully written and suspenseful, this apocalyptic novel focuses not on the tragedy itself but, instead, on the lives that led up to it and what might happen next.

When the story opens, we’re introduced to Augie. He’s 78 years old and is, objectively speaking, a brilliant astronomer. His expertise has brought him to Barbeau’s Observatory, a research station in the Arctic Circle. When an unspecified catastrophe happens, the base is evacuated, but Augie refuses to leave.

Shortly after everyone else has gone, Augie finds a little girl he assumes has been accidentally left behind in the rush to evacuate. There’s no way to contact anyone, so he reluctantly tends to her needs, and they eventually form a very unusual friendship.

Meanwhile, a spaceship is on its return flight from Jupiter when the crew loses contact with Mission Control on Earth. And this is when we get to know a woman astronaut named Sully.

The chapters alternate between Augie and Sully’s experiences, and eventually, their two plot threads connect, delivering thrilling action and quiet, meaningful moments. {more}

When the sun finally returned to the Arctic Circle and stained the gray sky with blazing streaks of pink, Augustine was outside, waiting. He hadn’t felt natural light on his face in months. The rosy glow spilled over the horizon and seeped into the icy blue of the tundra, casting indigo shadows across the snow. The dawn climbed like a wall of hungry fire, delicate pink deepening to orange, then crimson, consuming the thick layers of cloud one at a time until the entire sky was burning. He basked in its muted glow, his skin tingling. — Lily Brooks-Dalton

Meet Matti, a young boy growing up in Pajala, a town in Swedish Lapland, where the men are stone-faced, the women are silent, and — if fate smiles — the trout and grayling and salmon run strong.

In this coming-of-age story liberally sprinkled with magical realism, Matti is our guide to the extraordinary everyday events in his hometown, near the Arctic Circle. We meet beautiful women from Finland and a terrifying witch. There’s an African priest, a Nazi, and long-lost cousins from Missouri. Plus, the Beatles and a music teacher whose hands have sprouted thumbs in the middle of his palms.

As Matti navigates his path to becoming the man he — and his very traditional father — want him to be, we get snapshots of the brutal landscape and culture of Sweden. The seemingly endless rounds of schnapps and ensuing arm-wrestling competitions (and fistfights). The feasts with reindeer stew and crispbread with salmon and sugarbuns and whipped cream with warm cloudberry jam.

Poignant, funny, sometimes harsh, and always entertaining, this enchanting novel transports you to a place that’s unfamiliar and somehow also feels like home. {more}

The wedding took place in the middle of summer when everybody was on holiday, and the family home was flooded with relations. I was nearly thirteen and was allowed to sit at the table with the grown-ups for the first time. A solid wall of silent men, shoulder to shoulder like huge blocks of stone, and here and there their pretty wives from Finland, like flowers on a cliff face. As was normal in our family, nobody said a word. Everybody was waiting for the food. — Mikael Niemi

Lights All Night Long - Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long
> Lydia Fitzpatrick

A coming-of-age character study and a legit murder mystery, this novel is as entertaining as it is emotionally charged. It will leave you feeling bruised and a bit breathless.

Our hero is 15-year-old Ilya, a gifted student whose aptitude for the English language is about to change his life. His perpetual companion is his brother Vladimir, a few years older and a troubled young man whose love for his brother is as damaging as it is pure.

The brothers divide their time between going online at the Internet Kebab and watching bootleg VHS tapes of American films. Their (fictional) hometown of Berlozhniki in northwestern Russia would be unremarkable were it not for two factors: the shocking, brutal murders of three young women and the oil refinery that dominates the landscape and the lives of the townspeople.

When Ilya is chosen for an exchange program in Louisiana, it seems that the boys’ American dream will come true. But then Vladimir confesses to the girls’ murders and is thrown in jail. Convinced of his brother’s innocence, Ilya commits himself to finding the real murderer. {more}

Ilya had never had faith in anything except that knowledge could be gained. Numbers in a column added up to something. If you stared at a word, if you sounded out the letters and visualized its meaning, it could be learned. And there was Vladimir. Vladimir, who could not be counted on for anything, who was untrustworthy in a million little ways, but who had still managed to inspire Ilya’s faith. — Lydia Fitzpatrick

The Raven’s Gift - Don Rearden

The Raven's Gift
> Don Rearden

John and his wife Anna are enthusiastic teachers, and they’ve just signed on for a grand adventure. They’re heading to a remote Yup’ik village in southwestern Alaska for new jobs and new lives.

But this adventure takes a dark turn that neither of them could have anticipated. An epidemic decimates their village, and they’re forced to quickly learn painful lessons about Alaskan history and its deadly climate.

Author Don Rearden grew up on the tundra and rivers of Alaska, and a real-life epidemic in the late 1800s inspired this story. His prose, like the landscape it describes, is painfully beautiful — and he deftly blends elements of adventure, dystopian lit, suspense, and magical realism.

This is a bracing look at contemporary subsistence culture and the threat of epidemic in a climate where the weather is both an inciting incident and a character in this hero’s journey. {more}

John bent down and pressed his hand into the tundra moss. The stuff fascinated him. Up close, he could see countless species of intricate sponge-like plants all connected to each other: lichens and moss and grass, roots, berries, mushrooms, flowers of all colors, all in the space of his hand. He pressed his fingers into the cool wet sponge and held it there for a moment. The ground felt alive. — Don Rearden

Top image courtesy of Annie Spratt/Unsplash.

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The Arctic has fascinated humans for centuries. For the right kind of person, its ethereal beauty and challenging climate are irresistible. For others, it's the polar bears and puffins. Bundle up, we're heading north.
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