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Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney

Under a Pole Star

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Shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards 2017, Costa Novel Award

Flora Mackie leads a remarkable life. Daughter of a whaling captain, with her mother dead, she spent many of her teenage years sailing with him and living with the Inuit of Greenland. When grown, it naturally suits her to join an Arctic expedition with a British scientific team. Jakob de Beyn’s obsession with ice and glaciers also leads him north with an American expedition. Though they meet only briefly, he and Flora live similar lives with many parallels and some extraordinary stories. Hardship and determination colour both to the point where it is the Arctic that feels like home and the civilised Victorian world that seems hostile, and it is those sections that I found the most thrilling. Stef Penney’s book is huge; in length, in distances crossed, in ideas, in drama. Her elegant prose is a joy to read. Stretching from 1883 to 1948, it is not a novel of one thing only; not a portrait of a time, not a love story, not a cultural exploration, not an adventure story but all these things together, making it, above all, an excellent read. ~ Sarah Broadhurst

A Piece of Passion from the Jane Wood, Publisher, Quercus:

Dear Reader,

I hope you’re wrapped up warm. Within these pages are driving blizzards, weeping glaciers and a sea frozen into concrete – all conjured so realistically that you may find your breath misting in front of you as you read. Stef Penney’s power to create a world remote in time and place that feels as real as the book you are holding is unparalleled, and in Under a Pole Star she outdoes even her stunning achievements in The Tenderness of Wolves.

Although this book has a cold setting, it has a warm heart. I fell completely in love with clever, wry Flora Mackie and her determination to be an Arctic explorer. As she overcomes all obstacles to be seen as a real scientist and a true leader, I hope you will be as swept up in her adventures and her life-changing love affair as I was.

Under a Pole Star is a truly epic story that will stay with you long after you read it. Enjoy the journey.

The Costa Judges say: ‘A novel of huge scope with a tremendous sense of period and place.’

If you like Stef Penney you might also like to read books by Joseph Boyden, Louise Erdrich and Cecilia Ekback.

Reader Reviews

In addition to our Lovereading expert opinion some of our Reader Review Panel were also lucky enough to read and review this title. You can click here to read the full reviews.

  • Alison Battye - 'Stef Penney's writing is stunningly beautiful...This is a sensuous and beguiling story of love, loss and discovery.'
  • Sarah Musk - 'A breathtaking book about polar exploration in the late nineteenth century. It has it all - love, rivalry, hardship.  Everyone who reads this book will be mesmerised.'
  • Humaira - 'It was brilliant. It was Beautiful. It was everything you need in a book.'
  • Sarah Davis - 'a beautiful and evocative read.'
  • Jane Macleod - 'A beautiful historical story, with great atmosphere.  A real eye opener to a past life and the role of women.'
  • Bev Farningham - 'A well-researched and written novel.'
  • Lou Woods - 'The ambitions of men, and the hopes of women, wrapped up in an epic journey through ice and heartbreak. Absorbing, yet somehow for me unsatisfying.'
  • Sandra Rabiasz - 'Beautifully described golden age of exploration and the story of its pioneers.'
  • Annie Day - 'The story is beautifully told, with evocative descriptions of life on a whaling ship, Inuit customs and the stunning Arctic landscape.'
  • Rachel Gray - 'Overall I thought this was a novel that contains some beautiful descriptions of the Arctic, but unfortunately lacks enough character development to really pull me in.'
  • Edel Waugh - 'This is a book you will remember long after you have finished the last page. I highly recommend this if you enjoy stories about the golden age of exploration.'
  • Angela Rhodes - 'is one of the most beautiful, captivating novels I have ever read, this is not just a story about an expedition, it has romance, courage, strong women, handsome men, I loved it!!'
  • Vicky-Leigh Sayer - 'Please don’t let the 600+ page length of this novel put you off reading, for me it didn’t seem long at all, and was well worth the time invested.'
  • Hannah Ward - The amount of research that must of gone into this book is outstanding...It was awe inspiring to read about Flora and the era'.
  • Victoria Emerson - The writing is excellent as always and the description of the Arctic is spot on. There is much to like about this book, but it is very long and in parts slow.'


Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney

Mackie first crossed the Arctic Circle at the age of twelve. In 1889, the whaler's daughter from Dundee - dubbed by the press 'The Snow Queen' - sets out to become a scientist and explorer. She struggles to be taken seriously but determination and chance lead her back to northern Greenland at the head of a British expedition, despite the many who believe that a young woman has no place in this harsh world of men.Geologist Jakob de Beyn was raised in Manhattan. Yearning for wider horizons, he joins a rival expedition, led by the furiously driven Lester Armitage. When Jakob and Flora's paths cross, it is a fateful meeting. All three become obsessed with the north, a place where violent extremes exist side by side: perpetual night and endless day; frozen seas and coastal meadows; heroism and lies. Armitage's ruthless desire to be the true leader of polar discovery takes him and his men on a mission whose tragic outcome will reverberate for years to come. Set against the stark, timeless beauty of northern Greenland, and fin-de-siecle New York and London, Under a Pole Star is a compelling look at the dark side of the 'golden age' of exploration, a study of the corrosive power of ambition, and an epic, incendiary love story. It shows that sometimes you have to travel to the furthest edge of the world in order to find your true place in it.


'A suspenseful epic, offering a leitmotif of constant unease... impressive' Guardian

'Unquestionably atmospheric, evocative and ... rewarding Independent on Sunday A tense and delicately written thriller' Observer

'A remarkable literary debut ... brilliantly assured, subtly written' Scotsman

'Penney's evocation of the frozen lands of northern Canada couldn't ring truer if she'd spent months wandering through the land with nothing but a pack of huskies and a native tracker for company' Guardian

'Within the first fifty pages I was completely in love. It is a testimony to the power of good writing that it can present you with a world that you think you know nothing about, but by the end [of the book] you feel you own it' -- Armando Iannucci

'This subtle and superb novel brings the freezing landscape of the Canadian woods to such vivid life that the landscape itself becomes a strong character within the story' Crimesquad

'An absorbing and stylish mystery' Glasgow Herald

'A first-rate gripper with a notably sensual as well as psychological understanding of its main characters' Globe and Mail

About the Author

Stef Penney

Stef Penney was born and grew up in Edinburgh. After a degree in Philosophy and Theology from Bristol University she turned to film-making, studying Film and TV at Bournemouth College of Art. On graduation she was selected for the Carlton Television New Writers Scheme and has since written and directed two short films. She is the author of The Tenderness of Wolves and The Invisible Ones.

Author photo © Ian Phillips McLaren

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Book Info

Publication date

10th August 2017


Stef Penney

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Quercus Publishing


608 pages


Literary Fiction
All Shortlists and Winners
Costa Awards 2017
Historical Fiction
Reading Groups
eBook Favourites

Historical fiction



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