Snowfields and empty seas: The North Water, a Review

I’d picked up The North Water because I’m interested in the theme of disgraced protagonists who suffer because of their pasts, and because the snowscape/midnight sun aesthetic appeals to me. Apart from that I had very few expectations for The North Water, and so was pleasantly surprised by it as a whole.

[this is a relatively new book so I’ll warn that there are some spoilers further down the page] 

This is one of those books that picks you up and shakes you, and doesn’t put you down until it’s over. It’s a filthy, brutal story pierced throughout with a tenuous hope that gutters like a candle. The prose is very, very good, full of evocative detail and often unnerving descriptions of the alien Arctic landscape. It’s one of those ‘smelly’ historical novels, full of upsetting violence and animal cruelty but, I found, this was to a purpose, never glorified. And, like Wolf Hall, The North Water has a black ribbon of omen and secular spiritual fate running through it that is often quite chilling.


The protagonist, Sumner, is quite complex (and an Irishman, which automatically endears him to me), he suffers a great deal throughout the story and before it, and by necessity grows as a character. He’s essentially a good man, but is often led astray by his own greed or addiction, and while his willpower at the beginning of the book is negligible-he spends the first half of the book as an essentially passive character-it grows stronger as a result of his trials and tribulations. Added to this is his extraordinary bad luck in life, coupled with a violent, clawing good luck when it comes to survival that seems to carry him through violent suffering with or without his own volition.

Some criticism, though: there were almost no women, and the people of color in the book were never very developed, and often brutalized. The only indigenous Arctic person to have any characterization was Anna, and there was little enough of that. Also, I was wondering what made me uncomfortable about Sumner’s narrative with the Yaks (what does that word mean? What tribe were these people supposed to be from? Is ‘Yak’ a slur? If it is, someone please let me know and I’ll take it out) was that it felt like a rehash of the ‘magical foreigner’ trope. I’m still thinking about this, but since I’m not Native I don’t really have a qualified opinion on it. I’d be interested to hear y’all’s thoughts.


Something I liked about the book, and an issue which is pretty important to me, though, is the portrayal of McKendrick (the gay character). As I was reading I was worried that (predictably) McKendrick would end up scapegoated and hanged, or brutally killed by Drax or another crew member. This would have been par for the course for any number of books, especially historical fiction, in which narrative punishment is doled out to queer characters under the guise of verisimilitude.

The presence of McKendrick also makes the key distinction, not often made in this sort of book, between pedophilia and homosexuality. McKendrick, and McGuire through him, makes this overtly clear when McKendrick, by all rights an honest man, says “the boys int to my taste”. As a queer writer and consumer of media I see this distinction erased constantly in media that is often both queer-baiting and queer-demonizing, and I appreciate McGuire’s efforts to make the distinction clear.

What did other people think of the book? Women and indigenous readers and readers of color, how did you find the characterization (or lack thereof) of female and non-white characters in the book? Is this lack preferable to seeing these characters brutalized? For argument’s sake was there a possibility in this book for these characters to exist and to be developed without being brutalized/killed? The character of Anna is a potential example, what did you think of her?

[note: this is a slightly old post that has been transferred from my original book blog,, which I will delete soon]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s