Book Review: Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean

An astounding spy thriller by the master

This thriller novel kicks off with Dr. Carpenter, a British medical doctor, who gets orders to board the USS Dolphin in the UK. The US nuclear submarine Dolphin has a near-impossible mission: it has to cruise underneath the ice pack of the Arctic to find and save the inhabitants of Ice Station Zebra, a scientific meteorological station drifting with the ice pack somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. Ice Station Zebra was destroyed by a fire, but little does anyone know that fire at Ice Station Zebra was due to sabotage, and that one of the survivors is a ruthless killer. Furthermore, Dr. Carpenter is not what he seems to be and it later becomes evident that he has more staked in this cruise than originally suggested.

What I liked about the story is how Alistair MacLean demonstrated his writing ability and mastery of the genre to create an atmosphere that gets the reader to feel that he/she is also inside the submarine and can sense, feel, smell and experience the conflict, fear and tension on board the submarine. Definitely not as turbo-paced as Matthew Reilly’s more modern thriller novel with a nearly similar name, Ice Station, MacLean’s book does not lack in pace, but the pace is controlled to such a degree that the right amount of suspense is created and that the tension builds up as the story progresses. Reilly’s Ice Station is more about countless pages of jet-propelled action and relentless mindless violence, whereas MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra consists of the finesse of expert handling of suspense, intrigue and tension.

Although the dialogue may be more reminiscent of the era that the book was written in, this is truly still a masterpiece of the thriller genre and can almost serve as a template for thriller writers, where you have a plot stripped of all the unnecessary fluff that so many modern thrillers suffer from, which only serves to increase the page count and nothing much else.

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