William Day should be an acclaimed Arctic explorer. But after a failed expedition, in which his remaining men only survived by eating their dead comrades, he returned in disgrace.
Thirteen years later, his second-in-command, Jesse Stevens, has gone missing in the same frozen waters. Perhaps this is Day’s chance to restore his tarnished reputation by bringing Stevens—the man who’s haunted his whole life—back home. But when the rescue mission becomes an uncanny journey into his past, Day must face up to the things he’s done.
First of all many thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for my Arc of this book.
Happy release day!
Ally Wilkes’ debut novel ‘All the White Spaces’ did two important things for me: firstly, it opened me up to the endless potential that the desolate landscape of the arctic has within horror, and secondly it made any novel written by Ally Wilkes a must read for me. Needless to say, ‘Where the Dead Wait’ was very much a highly anticipated novel. It did not disappoint, but nor did it meet my expectations.
This is not a criticism!
‘All the White Spaces’ is gritty, and the landscape and conditions to survive in are truly horrific. Wilkes does not shy away from the punishment the cold can inflict on the human body. If ‘White Spaces’ depicts the arctic landscape as monstrous, then ‘Where the Dead Wait’ reveals the inverse: the monster that the landscape can create.
Main character William Day, in every sense of the word, is haunted. Haunted by his failed expedition, haunted by his reputation, and haunted by Jesse Stevens, his second-in-command on the failed expedition. I think it is fair to say that Day and Stevens had a *complex* relationship; an intimate relationship, or as intimate as explorers can be in the mid-1800s. Day, fourth in command on the expedition, was thrust into the captaincy role as those around him perished from scurvy, amongst other disastrous endings. In this vein, one of the themes I found the most intriguing throughout the novel was that of leadership.
Day, both on the past expedition and in the present one, is stuck in a position of power that he has no business being in, and he knows and hates it. Power dynamics are constantly at play throughout both timelines between Day and his ‘crew’. I never thought I would be sat here applauding ship politics, but it held a definite fascination and a razor-sharp edge to it. When order and civility hang by a thread; as food supplies dwindle and the nights get darker, any wrong decision Day makes is likely to have disastrous consequences. Wounds do not heal in the arctic freeze and Day, unintentionally or otherwise, is constantly in danger of inflicting many a wound upon his crew.
The relationship between Day and Stevens is at the black heart of both expeditions within the novel. It is a stark look into not just an unhealthy relationship, but a terminal brand of affection that has unthinkable consequences on the surviving crewmen. Stevens’ personality dominates and engulfs Day, and it is a damning insight into the dormant wickedness that exists in passive complicity. Day is aware of Stevens’ plots and plans and yet he chooses ignorance and love over the truth and a broken heart. The present-day narrative is a case of Day coming to terms with his reckoning.
Day, haunted by physical manifestations of Stevens (amongst other things), is finally forced to confront his past. Ally Wilkes is subtle with her use of supernatural forces, reality and insanity constantly intersecting and leaving you unsure what is real and make-believe. There is a hypnotic quality to some of her writing; in truth it can be a challenge at times, but it is a good challenge! It leaves you just as disorientated and vulnerable as the characters in the story. There is constant uncertainty about what is real and what isn’t, what is malicious and what is harmless, and this is all reflected in Day’s more and more reckless actions as captain. As the past closes in on Day, the more erratic he becomes.
Questions of identity plague the story until its very end. What does it mean to be a hero? A villain? Someone who is good? Someone who is bad? As always, the answer is typically found somewhere in the middle, and that is where Ally Wilkes thrives, between boundaries of certainty and uncertainty, in that uncanny grey area where the dead lie in wait.