This book is an extraordinary achievement: Brandt manages to blend together the stories of the many expeditions throughout the nineteenth century, by land and sea, that led to the mapping of the Western Arctic in the search for the Northwest Passage. He also gives the historical context of the period because this had a direct impact on the expeditions. Although an unlikely hero, Sir John Franklin is pivotal to the whole story: he not only led expeditions but it was, somewhat ironically, the many rescue missions for his final ill fated attempt that led to the `discovery' of the Passage.
Brandt shows how the public were thrilled by the daring deeds of these explorers and the hunt for the Northwest Passage became a national obsession. The exploits of these men entered the public imagination: Shelley's Frankenstein tells his story to a sea captain in the Arctic and, more recently, Pullman's Dark Materials uses the names of explorers Parry and Scoresby and the setting of Svalbard. Throughout the nineteenth century there was a touching, but tragic, naivety among the public that the discovery of the Northwest Passage was destined to be a British triumph. The belief that, whatever the hardships, British seamen would win through, led to loss of life and unimaginable hardship.
The book is a terrific read, full of fascinating information and interesting characters: Jane Franklin deserves a whole book in her own right and was responsible for many of the rescue expeditions that led to the successful mapping of the area. Brandt is to be commended for commemorating the courage of these men but for never losing sight of the appalling consequences of "this spectacular piece of folly...."