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on 17 March 2009
I hardly ever leave comments but felt I ought to on this occasion as I think the previous reviewer has been a little harsh. I do understand the general point about confusion arising from the blurring of fact and fiction but I do think most people know the story of Scott fairly well so I'm not sure it applies in this case. What is so fascinating and worthwhile about this book are the details that I for one hadn't considered before. Like the so-real passages about the practical details of how they managed day to day living in such conditions (yep I do mean going to the loo but lots of other things too), the compromises and conflicts between those who were able to pay for their places (and so fund the expeditions) and those who were actually able to do the job, how long they were away from their families and the effect this had on their relationships and, mainly, just how pitifully unprepared they were on the purely practical level of clothing - they were really in no more than we'd don for a walk on a brisk autumn day. Personally, I don't mind the fictionalising of some aspects of the story, it humanises the characters and makes their achievements so much more impressive as a result. I thought the end was very clever and thoughtful and very probably something quite close to the truth but it doesn't have to be, what it does is give us such a sense of place and of the people involved that we're left with the utmost respect for these amazing men. Surely, that is worth more than dry facts and stats?
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on 29 December 2009
In many ways, Robert Ryan's 'Death on the Ice' was perfect winter reading. At 546 pages, I felt as if I'd camped out at Hut Point for a few seasons myself. If you like tales of derring-do and flag-waving heroism, then Ryan is your man. His characters, in this fictionalised account of Scott's 1901 + 1911 expeditions to the South Pole, say things like: 'What an echo they'll leave on this world ... they died doing something great.' This reader is more struck by the folly and even arrogance of The Owner as Scott's men referred to him. In some of the closely-fought versions of this history, Scott has been accused of incompetence and even 'murder'. But more than 8,000 applied to join Scott's 1911 expedition and right to the last, men competed to be amongst the four who would claim the glory of standing at the Pole with him. So perhaps it tells us as much about the time and the country as it does about the man.

This is a meticulously researched book and sometimes, like Scott's sledges, the narrative groans under the weight of all those salvaged facts and reputations. I was surprised by how slow the first section of the book was. Ryan spends 200 pages juggling between short chapters relating Scott's first venture to Antarctica in 1901 and accounts of the army postings of Captain Lawrence Oates. I found it aggravating to be continually yanked away from the ice-bound Hut Point to the dusty veldt of the Boer War or the heat of Egypt. I'm not sure why Ryan decided to give so much attention to the backstory of Oates rather than any of the other men. Maybe because his reported last words, 'I am just going outside and I may be some time,' have become a key part of the Scott myth. Despite the continual disruption to the main narrative, one thing this achieved was to set Scott's venture in the context of the pre-war Empire. We see Oates fending off the Boers - 'mere Dutch farmers' - and heading up the summary flogging and execution of Egyptian prisoners. By using Scott's one Norwegian man, Tryggve Gran, as a kind of implied narrator, Ryan also points up the nationalistic tensions that riddled the attempts at the pole, with Scott becoming locked into a race with the far better prepared Amundsen.

But why read a novel about the race to the Pole when there are letters, diaries and survivors accounts as well as countless biographies? Ryan's skills as a novelist come to the fore when he's evoking the landscape of Antarctica and the harsh physical regime the men endured. There is one stunning scene where a group of Scott's doomed ponies are stranded on an ice floe during an attack by killer whales. Oates and another man try to save the ponies by leapfrogging across the floes but most of the horses go under to a terrifying death. I absolutely felt I was a witness to this scene just as I heard the strange cracks and sobs of the ice during those everlasting nights. Ryan is very good at capturing the penned-in atmosphere of Hut Point, the segregation of officers from the 'lower deck' men, the cliques and rivalries that form as well as deep loyalties. And when Scott confesses to Oates in the final bitter days, 'I've got us in a bit of a pickle, Soldier, haven't I?' - you really want to believe that clipped understatement is exactly what he said.

Scott's approach to the expedition has been much criticised in later years. Unlike Amundsen who lived for a time with the Inuits and learnt arctic survival skills from them, Scott's men were more enthusiastic amateurs. His refusal to wear furs or rely on huskie dogs smacked of not wanting to 'copy the natives'. Yet they did wear 'finneskoes' or reindeer boots and did stuff Norwegian grass down into them along with their homely woollen socks. Scott clung to the scientific justification of their expedition. He wanted to test out the efficiency of horses and dogs versus motorised sledges. Yet he also insisted on the moral superiority of 'man hauling', putting his half-starved men under greater pressure as they lugged sledges weighed down with geological samples as well as supplies. A photograph of the five men at the pole, devastated by their discovery that Amundsen had beaten them to it by a month, says it all. Defeated in 'this awful place,' they still had to face trudging back eight hundred miles, man-hauling all the way. Ryan's final section, as the catastrophe closes in around them, was the most compelling. And though it was an exhausting read, I was reluctant to leave behind the glacial landscape of the Ross Ice Shelf and the men lost in its white wilderness.
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Robert Ryan's "Death on the Ice" is a novelization of Robert Falcon Scott's attempts on The South Pole.

In 1901, his first - "The Discovery Expedition" - achieved the feat of "The Furthest South" - just beyond 81 degrees, but he was beaten back by appalling weather before he could reach his ultimate goal. The 1911 "Terra Nova Expedition" won Scott his immortality. He and four companions reached The Pole, but died on the return journey, barely a day's march from salvation.

Scott's reputation has waxed and waned in the 100 years since his death. Initially lauded as the archetypal heroic Englishman, he has more recently been portrayed as a hapless incompetent. Even more recently, biographers such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes have returned to the man's defence. Robert Ryan takes a fairly even-handed view of the man in this dramatization. He is neither hero nor fool, rather a relatively ordinary man driven to extreme undertakings; flawed in some ways, resilient in others and, ultimately, as much a victim of bad luck as of his failings.

"Death on the Ice" tells the story from the points of view of Scott's companions and colleagues as well as his own; chiefly Ernest Shackleton, who accompanied Scott other first expedition and Lawrence Oates who died on the second. Again, Ryan steadfastly avoids the veneration of men who have been greatly lionised since and, as a result, presents us with a story that reads realistically, believably and sympathetically.

It is, nevertheless, a gripping read. Ryan's description of the terrible privations suffered by the polar explorers is deeply compelling and I struggled to put the book down. It's well written as a novel; Ryan is a prolific and accomplished novelist and it is clear that he researched his subject well enough to write with some considerable authority. Of course it remains "only" a novel, but, if of you know little or nothing of Scott's adventures, you may well be tempted to seek out his more authentic biographies.

A highly recommended boy's own adventure.
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on 20 November 2013
Really enjoyed this book though it did take a bit of time to get into it because of all the chopping and changing between two main stories, Scott, Titus Oates. However, once the story gets to the ice, there are some unforgettable moments and I found myself reading all night and wondering about whether Scott would have succeeded in getting back had he chosen healthier men to go with him. I really recommend as a book that has been well-researched, with some excellent charaterization, and perceptive recreations of what might have been Scott's and Oates thoughts on their tragic adventure. I enjoyed this so much, I will probably a reread at some point in the future.
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on 6 May 2015
I have read many stories about Captain Scott, but this book explains a great deal. Although there is a certain amount of guesswork about what really happened out there on the ice of Antarctica, Ryan's storyline is very believable. A hero he was but Scott was also a bit of a martinet. He certainly had the full support of his crew, many of them died for him.
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on 26 November 2012
I have to admit that I approached this book with more than a little trepidation. 'Death on the Ice' is a novel - a novel based on Ryan's extensive research of the numerous primary and secondary sources which are freely available and which relate to Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century. My trepidation was based on the fact that I worry that such a genre has the potential to distort and misrepresent the life of a person who actually lived relatively recently and who is no longer able to defend himself. But I can now say that any such fears that I might have had, were totally unfounded.

Having read many of the sources myself, I can only say that I felt that Ryan did his utmost to be fair, and to faithfully represent a balanced version of what is likely to have actually happened. More than that, his descriptive skills and his ability to get inside the characters of the principal persona of the story, were a powerful means of enhancing my own understanding of what those with Scott actually experienced a century ago.

I also very much appreciated the way the author structured the story. For those who know the saga, and certainly the inevitable outcome, the novel could have been a somewhat tedious repeat of events in serial order. Instead Ryan uses relatively short chapters (each, an average of 6 pages), to provide 'glimpses' of the action in various places and times - London - the Barrier - Cape Evans - Berlin etc. and this effectively gives the story pace and drive. In addition, he focuses on particular characters. I especially enjoyed his portrayals of Titus Oates, Kathleen Scott and Tryggve Gran and felt that I got to know them more than ever before.

I have one small niggle towards the end. Nobody will ever know the mind of Titus Oates when he left the tent for his own oblivion. But Ryan spent a page and a half guessing and relating as fact those last innermost thoughts. Clearly he was trying to bring the novel to a fitting climax. But for me, this moment would have achieved greater poignancy if those thoughts had been left unsaid. But let such a niggle not detract from what I felt was a fine novel and I am so pleased I chose to read it.
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on 12 June 2010
This was a superb blend of fact and fiction which not only told the story of the bravery of these men but also allowed you to get to know them. I read a lot of books, most of them very good. But few books have ever moved me like this one did. At one point I read some of this book in my garden on a lovely sunny day but the story was so vivid I was there on the ice.
If you are like me and prefer a fictional read to a factual one but are fascinated by true life stories of heroism and bravery, then this is the book for you. I now have a totally different perspective of Scott, Oates and the ill fated journey plus some background knowledge that I previously did not know.
This book has peaked my interest enough to plan a trip to Dundee to vist the "Discovery" museum, and that can't be a bad thing!!
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on 14 April 2012
An excellent read if naturally tinged with the sadness of the inevitable outcome. I particularly enjoyed the scene setting and background history of Titus Oates the only army representative at the pole.

Scott's wife Kathleen comes across as a fascinating and strong character behind Scott himself. There is a superb recreation of the perilous journey of the Terra Nova from New Zealand to the pole. Quite frankly that journey alone makes heroes out of the team. Overloaded (the Plimsoll line being painted over!) and facing mountainous seas, how they managed to convey all their kit as well as the horse and dogs, is remarkable.

The heat-breaking discovery of being beaten to the pole is told with understatement, as is the final trudge into blizzards of the returning polar party. The end for Scott, Wilson and Bowers is told with a brevity that somehow leaves one wanting more, but of course the final hours are inevitable conjecture with only Scott's diary and final letters to go on.

The interspersing of actual quotes form journal diaries and letters works well. Despite having read a number of related non fiction books, this added to my appreciation of what these men accomplished, and left me humbled at the stoicism and patriotism of men from the Great War generation who seem a different breed from Englishmen of today. Our 'heroes' are sportsmen and women, pop stars and movie stars, Simon Cowell and Strictly dancers....don't get me going.
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on 13 August 2013
This was a phenomenal audio book. Despite 'knowing the ending' the author manages to make this gripping from start to finish. The narration is incredible, with so many different but identifiable characters that all add to the depth of the tragedy.
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on 3 August 2009
Really enjoyed this book, the use of fact and fiction interwoven results in a very enjoyable read.Knowing the story of Scott quite well it was good the way the story kept going from one place to the next, one minute your in the tent in the snow plateau,the next back in England with his wife.I have read some Robert Ryan before but this was certainly my favourite. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who wants a good old ripping yarn to read for the summer.
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