Ice Station Zebra (Novel)

An exhilarating and at times extremely claustrophobic Cold War thriller

What it’s about

Dr Carpenter has orders to go to the Arctic on Commander Swanson’s atomic submarine, the Dolphin. They have to sail beneath the ice-floes of the Arctic Ocean to locate and rescue the men of weather-station Zebra, gutted by fire and drifting with the ice-pack somewhere north of the Arctic Circle.

But the rescue is more than it seems, as is Dr Carpenter, whose secret mission is to find the traitor who started the fire, the traitor that is playing a very dangerous game which could see them all sent to the bottom of the ocean…

My thoughts

​This is another of Alistair MacLean’s famous novels, though these days perhaps most people will recognise the name more as a result of the film version, which is a very well known classic.

It is set in the Cold War which means inevitably the Soviets are the bad guys, it is also set in the Arctic which is a bit of a speciality for Alistair MacLean and one thing about the book is that you really do feel that you are in the Arctic.

It is a little bit slow to start but that is mainly because, due to it being written in the 60s, there is a lot of time spent introducing the submarine. Basically we are taken on a tour of it and spend a good bit of time learning about how it works. At the time due to submarines of the type of the Dolphin (the submarine in the novel’s name), so high-tech atomic ones which can stay under water for long periods of time and don’t have to resurface every twelve hours or so, due to submarines like this being relatively new at the time of writing, inevitably if you had no knowledge of submarines like that reading about them would be pretty cool. However, to the modern reader all of this will most likely be scan material.

But once the story gets going to say the least this is a brilliant and exhilarating espionage thriller. And I have to say there are some truly vivid images that you will be left with after reading this novel.

From the claustrophobic feel of being inside the submarine, which is especially brought to life when there is a fire, to the images of the Arctic which MacLean brings to life brilliantly, especially when they have to battle through a storm to initially find the station, this book really takes you there.

The most impressive part of this novel though is how MacLean keeps the mystery alive, the story is told from the point of view of Carpenter, though it is likely that you will relate more to Commander Swanson – at least that was how it was for me. The reason being Carpenter spins endless tale after endless tale and is most certainly a master of manipulation, gradually though he is forced to reveal to Swanson and thus us as readers more and more information about the true goings-on.

Some people may find this annoying, but for me the balance in this book I feel is right and the narrative moves along at a nice pace.

One thing I will say is that the ending does have a little bit of a Hercule Poirot feel about it which may feel a little bit odd for a espionage thriller, but it is done nicely and does round everything up, leaving no loose ends. The last line also made me smile which is always a good thing. Everything rounded up, and ending on a note that makes you smile.

All in all that means from me it gets a solid thumbs up.

Writer: Alistair MacLean

Genre: spy thriller, mystery, action

Year: 1963