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An improbable page-turner: Margaret von Klemperer reviews Fiona Snyckers’ Spire

Published in The Witness

SPIREBACK in the mists of time when I was at school, the thrillers of choice were those by Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean – for me the latter’s Ice Station Zebra. And it was that book kept coming to mind when reading Fiona Snyckers’ Spire. It isn’t just the icy setting – this time the Antarctic rather than MacLean’s Arctic – but also the breathless plot-driven nature of the story.

Here the background is eco-war rather than Cold War. South African Caroline Burchell is a virologist who is spending the winter at Spire, a remote research station on the frozen continent, as one of a multi-national team involved in a variety of projects. But shortly after their arrival, her companions start dying off from all kinds of nasty diseases like Ebola, the plague, smallpox and bird flu, all bugs which Caroline brought with her in sealed vials. Soon she is apparently the only one left alive, her sole contact with the outside world via Skype or radio phone, when the weather allows.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the project bosses in distant New York suspect her of bumping off everyone for some loony reason of her own. Caroline has to try to clear her name before the Antarctic summer allows rescuers and investigators to come in. And she slowly becomes aware that, in fact, she is not alone. Considering that she’s a brilliant scientist, she becomes aware remarkably slowly, and she’s not alone several times over, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Snyckers is inclined to over-egg her pudding, and by throwing everything at the plot, she compromises some of the tension her story ought to create. Caroline has to struggle with keeping herself alive, dealing with dozens of corpses and keeping the facility running, coping with being suspected of mass murder, personal problems, investigations into the lunatic fringe of eco-warriors on the dark web – she obviously has a better internet connection than some of us in less remote places – and the realisation that someone nearby is toying with her. But somehow, Spire lacks the creepiness and sense of foreboding all that should engender. It is just too improbable. Still, there is enough here to keep the pages turning. I’m not sure who Snyckers’ target audience is, but thinking back to my Alistair MacLean days, Spire could well resonate with readers looking for an escape from schoolwork. Margaret von Klemperer

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