Book cover: The Stars Seem So Far Away - Margret Helgadottir (a woman on the edge of an Arctic shoreline, in shades of blue)The sun has seared the Earth. Food scarcity and water wars have devastated nations. Survivors have fled to the once-frozen North – and out into space – to try and make a new life. Welcome to the deserted islands of the Arctic, haunted by pirates and survivors.

The Stars Seem So Far Away is a debut novel that started out as a handful of disconnected short stories. While this shows in certain plot conveniences and loose threads, it is a largely successful conversion to a coherent, compelling narrative.

Nora has sailed the seas alone since her parents died, hardening her heart to fend off pirates and pillage the dead. She is competent and cautious, her one real fear the horror of becoming as ruthless as a pirate herself.

Plague-survivor Aida haunts the ruined skyscrapers of Svalbard (and honestly, that phrase alone sent shivers down my spine. It’s an entire novel of world-building in a single phrase, freighted with implications), persisting but slowly starving as others rob what few supplies remain.

Anxiety-ridden Zaki has struck out alone, abandoning Aida and their father as the plague ravaged the city, following his father’s instruction to head to Greenland in search of a better place.

Independent, merciless Bjørg keeps everyone away from the seed vault she protects, raising lab-grown modified polar bears to defend her and her priceless treasure. Alone since her father’s disappearance, she shocks herself when she refrains from executing Simik.

And Simik himself, son of the far north, communer with spirits of the long dead, is a natural leader and literal visionary. Can he persuade the wild children of the North to come together to forge a new future?

All this makes The Stars Seem So Far Away sound like a rip-roaring adventure. It’s not. This is a quiet, unexpectedly gentle novel of brief sentences that implies as much as it tells. The magic for me was in the gaps it leaves for your imagination to fill and the successful evocation of the northern chill.

Every character is young and isolated, teetering on the edge of despair. The islands harbour ruthless inhabitants devoid of empathy, full of tricks. The focus is on the emotional and mental state of the protagonists, lonely but resilient, all driven to live up to promises made to long-dead parents but vulnerable to the charm of adopted stand-ins (curiously all male; no maternal mentors here, although the friendships that develop between the girls reconciled me to this).

It’s not perfect. It’s very low-key, which means it won’t be for everyone, and not necessarily neat and tidy (I was slightly frustrated by the loose threads in the mountains above Nuuk – were the boys cannibals? Who killed the travellers in the pass? Who built the altar?) But I enjoyed it immensely for its evocation of a disintegrating, empty world and its determination to cling to hope over despair.
****

I received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.