The Arctic Code:  A fast-paced middle-grade novel with some issues

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Arctic Code by Matthew Kirby MG fantasy novel reviewsThe Arctic Code by Matthew Kirby

Matthew Kirby’s newest release, The Arctic Code, is the first book in a new MG/YA science fiction series entitled THE DARK GRAVITY SEQUENCE. Unlike some of his prior books, like The Clockwork Three and Icefall (two of my favorite reads those respective years), this one is more fully an MG work, in that it lacks that adult crossover appeal and even older, more sophisticated younger readers will find themselves questioning some of the logic of events or wishing for some more depth of character. Its target audience, however, will mostly (I guess) respond well to its fast pace, frequent tension, and especially Eleanor, the impulsive hero at the heart of the story.

The setting is a near-future Earth undergoing the beginnings of a new Ice Age. Glaciers are marching south at a rate of nearly three feet a day and refugees from Canada and the northern US are flooding southern states and Mexico, creating rough conditions and a tiered class system. Meanwhile, oil is quickly dwindling as a resource, a problem in a world desperate for heat. Eleanor Perry is a young teen living with her uncle Jake in Phoenix while her climatologist mother is off in the arctic looking for new oil deposits. When Eleanor receives a series of cryptic messages from her mother via her “Sync” (a slightly futuristic cell/satellite phone), and then her mother suddenly disappears out on the ice sheet with another scientist, it sets into motion a chain of events that ends up with Eleanor in the arctic searching for her mother, along with the two sons of the other missing scientist. What they end up discovering, however, goes way beyond what any of them had expected. Also thrown into the plot/character mix is a transnational energy corporation (G.E.T.) and its coldly rational CEO (do I really need to tell you if they’re good or bad?), a gruff pilot with a heart of gold, mysterious sightings of a man on a sled pulled by wolves where nothing can live, a potential global conspiracy, and a mammoth named Kixi.

Eleanor, as mentioned, is one of the strengths of the novel, even if we’ve seen her type quite a bit. We follow her through a limited third-person point of view, and our introduction is via a wonderfully economical set scene where she jury-rigs a snow machine out of parts at hand for a late-night sledding escapade down the side of a building. The scene shows the many aspects of her personality that will drive much of the plot: her inventiveness (her mom’s go-to phrase for her creations is “devilishly clever”), near-fearlessness, and sense of adventure; her ability to talk herself out of touchy situations, her willingness to go against authority up to a certain point, and her leadership qualities (she convinces two of her friends, as usual, to join her on the escapade). It also quickly introduces the Ice Age world, her mother’s absence, and Eleanor’s conflicted feelings over how much her mother is gone. Kirby’s economy has always been one of his strong points, and this opening is a perfect example of it. And as implausible as a young teen making her way to the Arctic alone is, this scene makes it at least slightly more believable.

The Arctic Code moves along a pretty fast clip after this, with Eleanor’s mom disappearing, Eleanor fleeing agents of the energy company, flying to Alaska, fleeing more G.E.T. agents, and nearly dying out on the ice sheet in a last desperate search for her mother. After that, the pace moves if anything even more quickly. Despite the quick action (the whole book is just about 300 pages long), Kirby does slow things now and then to allow people to have a few (not a lot) of quiet conversations or moments of introspection. While younger readers will probably eat up the pacing, I would have preferred if Kirby had slowed down in several spots and given us a greater sense of setting and character, and allowed things to develop a bit more gradually, as for example when Eleanor realizes there’s a somewhat discomfiting similarity between her mother and the villain of the story.

The pacing and quick departure, for instance, means that Eleanor’s two school friends are almost immediately dropped, which was too bad in that their somewhat complicated relationship with Eleanor (she often gets them in trouble) and with society (one of them is a refugee) would have added some depth to both the worldbuilding and Eleanor’s character. That depth of character is mostly lacking in the characters beyond Eleanor. Her friends are mostly unmet potential simply due to lack of page time while the two brothers she meets in Alaska (sons of the other missing scientist) are distinguishable from each other but still a bit flat in their depiction. The pilot is a likable character, but really doesn’t move beyond the gruff-tough-with-a-heart-of-gold type, and is also perhaps a bit inconsistent in his responses to Eleanor’s acts. Skinner, the CEO of G.E.T., plays pretty straight to type as well; certainly nobody will be surprised by his actions or his motivations. The most fully fleshed-out side character is Eleanor’s mother, Dr. Perry (and let me just note the welcome depiction of a female scientist in the field), less for her own sense of personality but more for the emotionally wrought relationship the two of them have, which is deftly handled without being overblown. I actually wouldn’t have minded that being explored a bit more, but there’s certainly room to do so in future books.

The plot has its plausibility moments as mentioned. And a few issues that were somewhat glaring for me, such as Eleanor not having to go to the bathroom on her 8-hour flight (if she did go, that brings up a whole other potential issue I won’t go into) or a character searching through files without noting when they were last opened. I’m sure younger readers won’t notice this sort of thing, but it’s one of the reasons the book lacks some of that crossover appeal for even older YA, and I also prefer not counting on readers noting plot holes due to their age. I had some major questions about some of the revelations at the end, and there are some pretty abrupt shifts, but the book relies on some big twists there and I don’t want to spoil things, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Finally, I’ll just add that while the book is more of a younger MG/YA, there is a pretty violent scene at the end. Nothing of any graphic nature at all, but there are deaths by violence.

Younger readers (middle grades/junior high) will find The Arctic Code to be a fast paced, often exciting book with an engaging main character at its center, a book they will most likely zip through and end up wishing for more even if they are a bit befuddled by some of its twists and turns at the end. Older YA (say, early high school) will most likely raise an eyebrow here and there at some of the gaps of logic or at the implausibility of some events, as well as wish for a bit more clarity on some of those twists. Happily recommended for that younger group; recommended with caveats for 9th-10th graders.

Dark Gravity Sequence — (2015- ) Age Level: 8 – 12 | Grade Level: 3 – 7. Perfect for fans of the Percy Jackson and Seven Wonders series, The Arctic Code is the first book in an epic, fast-paced middle grade adventure trilogy by acclaimed author Matthew J. Kirby. It is the near future, and the earth has entered a new ice age. Eleanor Perry lives in Tucson, one of the most popular destinations for refugees of the Freeze. She is the daughter of a climatologist who is trying to find new ways to preserve human life on the planet. Dr. Perry believes that a series of oil deposits she has found in the Arctic may hold the key to our survival. That’s when she disappears—but not before sending Eleanor a series of cryptic messages that point to a significant and mysterious discovery. Now it’s up to Eleanor to go find her. This search will launch Eleanor on a breathless race to unlock the mysteries of what has happened to our planet, solving the riddle of the cold that could be humanity’s end—and uncovering a threat to the earth that may not be of this world.

The Rogue World (Dark Gravity Sequence) Kindle Edition by Matthew J. Kirby


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. Ummm… a climatologist searching for petroleum? Did I read that right?

    This sounds like it would make a very successful movie or short mini series.

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