Frozen Solid

Book review of Frozen Solid by James Tabor

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Publication date: March 26, 2013
Category: action/adventure thriller; science thriller; Hallie Leland series (#2)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Summary (from the publisher):

The South Pole’s Amundsen Scott Research Station is like an outpost on Mars. Winter temperatures average 100 degrees below zero; week-long hurricane-force storms rage; for eight months at a time the station is shrouded in darkness. Under the stress, bodies suffer and minds twist. Panic, paranoia, and hostility prevail.

When a South Pole scientist dies mysteriously, CDC microbiologist Hallie Leland arrives to complete crucial research. Before she can begin, three more women inexplicably die. As failing communications and plunging temperatures cut the station off from the outside world, terror rises and tensions soar. Amidst it all, Hallie must crack the mystery of her predecessor’s death.

In Washington, D.C., government agency director Don Barnard and enigmatic operative Wil Bowman detect troubling signs of shadowy behavior at the South Pole and realize that Hallie is at the heart of it. Unless Barnard and Bowman can track down the mastermind, a horrifying act of global terror, launched from the station, will change the planet forever—and Hallie herself will be the unwitting instrument of destruction.

As the Antarctic winter sweeps in, severing contact with the outside world, Hallie must trust no one, fear everyone, and fight to keep the frigid prison from becoming her frozen grave.

ScienceThrillers Review:

Frozen Solid by James Tabor is a fast-paced, action-adventure thriller starring Tabor’s series character Hallie Leland, who was first introduced in The Deep Zone. I love Hallie because she’s both a powerful action heroine (a master at scuba diving and climbing under extreme conditions) AND a microbiologist. She is utterly lacking in stereotypical nerd traits, possesses extraordinary mental and physical stamina, and even has an amazing, Thor-like boyfriend.

A protagonist like that needs a big challenge, and in Frozen Solid the author provides it. Hallie is dispatched to the South Pole to complete a critical scientific mission in the days before “winterover,” when Earth’s most extreme weather prevents anyone from entering or leaving the research station for eight months. She is replacing another woman who died suddenly–a woman who was her friend. Her mission: a very dangerous solo dive into a “lake” under the ice sheet, a lake so salty that at 22 degrees Fahrenheit it’s still not frozen, to get a specimen of a newly-discovered extremophile bacterium that lives there.

Readers will know within the first pages whether author James Tabor’s style is to their liking.  Tabor writes with a distinctive voice characterized by two traits. First, he creates a palpably oppressive, stressful, and alien setting in the South Pole research station. Sure, we all know it’s cold and dark at the South Pole, and Tabor of course uses these facts to good effect. But he layers on the psychological effects of the extreme isolation, danger, and boredom of life at the Pole. The denizens of the research station are portrayed as slightly unhinged and prone to unpredictable behavior–even violence–at any time. Hallie arrives in this environment and must cope with it. The looming threat that she might be trapped for winterover feels quite disturbing.

Second, Tabor’s writing style is stripped clean of anything “unnecessary.” This book is action-dense with clipped scenes, some graphic descriptions, and a minimum of internal thought, a bit in the fashion of James Patterson. Some readers will love this. Others might wish for more material to savor the depth of a scene. For example, early in the book Hallie witnesses a shocking death which surely creates many questions and concerns in her mind, but the reader does not hear them. Overall this style has what I’d describe as a television script-like quality: not much insight into what the characters are thinking, structured with abrupt breaks and continuous tension to keep the reader turning the pages.

The tension is extreme in scenes that demonstrate the author’s real-life familiarity with diving and climbing. Two of the very best action sequences in the book put Hallie in the water under the ice. These scenes are convincing, detailed, and terrifying.

For an action thriller, Frozen Solid does a good job of not being predictable. I had a couple of expectations of how the book would wrap up, and although there isn’t a big “twist”, I did not foresee the sequence of events.

The rest of my comments apply to the science content of the book. Thriller fans who are just in it for the action can ignore my complaints about the science in this science-based thriller plot.

Frozen Solid is an action-adventure thriller–a successful one–built atop two distinct scientific plot lines. The science plots are disposable–not necessary to enjoy the thrilling events depicted–which is fortunate, because both science plots are problematic. Hence my 2-biohazards (out of 5) rating for the tech content of this novel.

Science plot #1 involves a global scientific conspiracy using the isolated polar research station to develop and launch a world-changing plague of sorts (I’m not giving details to avoid a spoiler). The author tosses out phrases like this: “engineered a picornavirus that carries a strep bacterium payload” and “protease manipulation…(to) give it a neurological affinity.” I’ll spare you the molecular biology lecture but this is technobabble. The bad guys’ plan is plausible only if viewed at a great distance; when the author engages with the details and uses scientific language to do it, I cringed.

Science plot #2 involves an extremophile bacterium discovered in the super-high-salt, super-cold subglacial lake. By itself, this is good stuff. Such organisms have been discovered in real life and they are fascinating. But in the novel, this microbe is given absurd properties. We’re told that it “consumes carbon dioxide” and produces a miraculous petroleum-like fuel. By itself, this also is true of some real microbes. Photosynthetic bacteria, like plants, consume CO2 and using the energy of the sun, turn CO2 into sugars and other energy-containing molecules such as hydrocarbons. But the microbe in Frozen Solid lives in darkness and has no energy source. There’s no biologically accessible energy in CO2 molecules. Microbes can consume carbon dioxide, but they can’t use it as food (just as humans consume oxygen but we still must eat).  Other details about this microbe are equally unscientific (“The thing metabolizes carbon dioxide. It might consume carbon in any form.”), as are the descriptions of Hallie’s laboratory investigation into its properties (98.6 degrees, not 86 degrees!). Fortunately, as a character Hallie Leland is an adventurer first and a microbiologist second. Only a tiny fraction of the book is actually about her as a scientist.

In summary, Frozen Solid is a fast-paced, visceral thriller with a likeable heroine and some stellar high-stakes action sequences set against the extreme background of the South Pole. Trust author Tabor when he talks tech about diving and climbing. When he delves into microbiology and medicine, turn the page and skip to the next action sequence.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader e-copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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