Friday, February 27, 2009

PRISON OF ICE by David Axton

Dean Koontz is a marvelously talented and prolific writer. His work carries back decades; his first published novel was one-half of an ACE Double SF titled Star Quest. He started out writing science fiction, but his work has evolved and changed extensively since his early days. And in his early days, like many writers, he worked in various genres and venues—he wrote science fiction, mystery, thriller, horror, and even gothic romance.

The bulk of Mr Koontz early work is out-of-print. I read once that when he hit the best-seller list he went on a buying frenzy—he purchased the rights of many of his early titles from the various publishers that owned them because he didn’t think most were worthy of marketing to his new, mainstream, audience. I’ve always admired that about Dean Koontz, but what I admire even more is his work. All of it, even the few titles I’ve read that he has made the decision to keep off the shelves, is pretty damn good.

I ran across his novel Prison of Ice in a thrift shop a few weeks ago and I couldn’t wait to crack it open. It was published in 1976 in hardcover by J.B. Lippincott, and then in mass market a year later by Fawcett Crest as by David Axton. It has since been updated—Koontz rewrote and republished it in 1995 as Icebound. He updated the technology and added something like 150 pages to the paperback. I’ve had Icebound in my collection for years, but never made time to read it, but when I found the original I couldn’t help myself.

A United Nations scientific team is conducting a research expedition in the hostile North Artic. They are studying the possibility of dislodging large segments of icebergs to transport and use as irrigation water in the western desert of the United States. The team consists of nine members, and when the novel opens eight are planting bombs in the ice in an attempt to separate a section from a large ice shelf.

A brutal storm is expected in the next few hours and the group is in a hurry to finish and get back to their base camp, but before they can a large tsunami-like wave hits the ice shelf—it was caused by multiple seismic incidents several hundred miles away on the ocean floor. The wave hits the ice shelf and separates the work area from the larger body of ice.

The team quickly realizes they are trapped on an iceberg that is slowly moving south with an artic blizzard brewing. Their only hope of escape are two trawlers several hundred miles away that can’t possibly forge through the bitter storm. They have limited supplies, and worse the bombs they planted are set to go off at midnight. Then, when their odds of survival are particularly bleak, one of their own is knocked unconscious in an attempted murder on the ice. No one knows who the murderer is, but everyone knows the murderer is a member of the expedition.

Prison of Ice is an homage to the work of Alistair MacLean—a fast and crisp thriller with enough betrayal, suspense, hardship—both from the physical elements and the intrigue of just who really is the bad guy—and adventure to keep the reader entertained without ever once questioning the very implausible action on the pages. There is even a tagline on the front cover that compares it to the work of Alistair MacLean—“Super suspense-adventure in the thrill-a-minute tradition of Alistair MacLean….”

The plot is sleek and fast. Mr Koontz moves the story quickly enough from crisis to crisis that the reader doesn’t have time to question and evaluate the happenings. Rather, the reader simply, and blissfully, straps in and enjoys the ride. The story is measured in time. It opens at 11:57am and closes twelve hours later. It is written in third person and the characters are built soundly enough to make them likable, and there are enough red herrings to keep the murderers identity a secret until the final climax.

The prose is perfectly matched to the story. It is sparse and stark without embellishment or unnecessary description: “Unclipping his flashlight from the tool belt that encircled his waist, he cut open the perfect blackness with a blade of light and looked at the snowflakes swirling inside.”

Prison of Ice is an excellent and entertaining novel. It is the only one of its kind and style that Dean Koontz has written, which is a shame because he has a knack for it. With that said, is it as good as MacLean’s early work? No, but still, it is a great and fun read that anyone who enjoys thrillers in this vain will absolutely love.

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