“I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart”
Pomery begins the book by explaining a bit about the British Arctic Territory, which he says lies within the Queen Elizabeth Islands, a group of islands wedged between Nunavut and Greenland. In the afterword, he notes that nothing that happened in the book actually occurred, and it appears that the British Arctic Territory doesn’t exist, at least not in the form he claims, as the book takes place in 1984 and Britain’s claims to the Northwest Territories and the adjacent islands were ceded to Canada in 1880. There are 14 British Overseas Territories, but none of them are in the Arctic. Got that? Good!
It doesn’t really matter if the territory exists, because Pomery is writing a story about deeper things, not just where the British Arctic Territory is located. Harrison Fleet is posted to the BAT after time spent in the Congo, and early on, we find out some crucial things: his father was a legendary diplomat for Britain, the previous administrator of the territory disappeared, and there’s some “local unrest.” Oh dear. When Fleet arrives, he immediately discovers that the locals have no time for him, and they become more and more disdainful as the book goes along. Not all of the locals are such, though, as Abel, the “community engagement director,” helps him get settled in the bizarre, lonely Victorian house that the founder of the colony built in the 1880s. That guy, Captain Netherton, also disappeared under mysterious circumstances, along with a bunch of natives, and Fleet gradually unravels both mysteries, as there’s not much else for him to do out there. The actual answer to what happened isn’t that shocking, but it’s not supposed to be, because it’s not really the point.
Pomery uses the mystery to examine colonialism, obsession, patriotism, madness and isolation, and even white privilege. Fleet is bound by his past – by his devotion to his country, by his devotion to his father – and when he arrives in the Arctic, he doesn’t understand what has happened there. The people treat him poorly, not because he’s a bad dude, but because he’s a symbol, and Fleet never quite gets that while he’s in the north, coming to terms with it only when he’s back in London. By 1984, the world had changed for Britain, and it’s clear – given that this is set not too long after the Falklands War – that the British still had no idea how to function in it. It was still Civilization, Christianity, and Commerce, even if it should have been obvious that the native of any one place might not buy into this ethos at all. The nice thing about this is that Pomery doesn’t push this too much until the end, when Fleet himself comes around to the conclusions. For much of the book, it’s about the mystery, which is important for the main point, so it’s not a MacGuffin like it could have been. Fleet’s investigation into the mystery of both Netherton and his immediate predecessor reveals the problems the natives have with the British and why an ethos like colonialism was so poisonous despite some obvious benefits to it (colonialism remains a fascinating and complex part of world history, and I’m not about to get into it too much in this review). It’s also interesting that Fleet only sees this in retrospect, much like most of the governments and people involved – they couldn’t see what they were doing to native civilizations until it was over, and by then, of course, it was too late. Fleet himself doesn’t do anything to destroy the natives, but he also doesn’t understand them until he’s not there anymore. Pomery subtly makes the case that the colonizers reacted the way they did because they couldn’t understand why the natives would reject them – didn’t they understand it was for their own good? Again, Fleet doesn’t go that far, but in the climax of the book, when a tragedy occurs (which is, I think, the only misstep in the book, although I understand why it’s there), there’s definitely a bit of whining in the way he addresses some natives, because they just don’t get it. Fleet is a good protagonist for the book, because he’s not only a symbol but a good man, so we can understand the colonizing impulse better if it’s filtered through him than if he had been a bully.
The blue-tinged art gives the book a cold feeling, as does Pomery’s depiction of the frozen north. The art works well with the story, as Netherton built his weird house far from the village, as he wanted to create a “British” town in the wasteland but he disappeared before he could see the vision unfold. So the house is creepy not only because it’s incongruous in the location, but because of its isolation, which leads back to that theme, as the implication is that the British go mad partly because of their isolation (not a new theme, true, but one that Pomery hints at nicely without being too obvious about). There are several full-page splashes in the book, usually showing the vastness of the landscape and man’s complete insignificance, which again can make someone lose their grip on sanity, and Pomery again hints at the idea of “Britishness” – the thought that you’re the chosen people who stand astride the world, as in the famous Cecil Rhodes cartoon – as a contrast to the uncaring north. Fleet is drawn, not as a conquering hero, but as a slightly timid bureaucrat, which helps make him more sympathetic but also further shrinks him when set against the land. There’s a sadness to the art, as Pomery shows that Fleet and most of the natives will simply never reach a common ground – he draws the natives with closed faces, giving nothing away but a simmering hostility to this intruding white man. There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, true, but there are plenty of times when Pomery just lets the art speak for itself, which is a pretty smart idea.
British Ice is an interesting look at colonialism and what it can do to a place, even decades after the colonizers have seemingly forgotten about it. It has a decent mystery to keep things moving along, but Pomery does a good job brining in deeper themes that countries and people are still grappling with. It’s pretty … cool.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆