Explorers of the New Century, by Magnus Mills

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The Independent Culture

Magnus Mills's fifth novel is an adventure yarn with a difference. That we have no idea what the difference is, at least to begin with, is part of what makes the book special.

Two ships land a short time apart at a distant shore. Commander Johns is leading an expedition to an unnamed territory, its goal to reach the Agreed Furthest Point from Civilisation. A few days earlier, a group led by Tostig set out for the same point along a different route to the east, following a dry riverbed.

There's tension, not only in the rivalry between the two parties, but within each group as well. Among Johns's men, Cook and Sargent fail to show initiative and so cop for it from Scagg, Johns's brownnose of a Number Two, while Summerfield is too keen, racing on ahead. Over in Tostig's camp, Thegn is in trouble for showing "too much" initiative, borrowing a set of scales without asking.

Back on the western front, as one exhausting scree slope is replaced by another, Medleycott seems overly anxious about the sleeping arrangements, while in Tostig's group, the leader sings the praises of dried food that will make it easier to eat alone, avoiding "people we can't abide".

Surely these are not healthy concerns among pioneers in a harsh landscape? They are the first sign, apart from the author's name on the jacket, that this is far from a straightforward retelling of the race, between Scott and Amundsen in the early years of the 20th century, to reach the South Pole.

For a start, Mills's novel is occasionally, as you would expect, very funny. Take this exchange between Tostig and Thegn:

"'The task requires both daring and judgment; one slip could mean certain death. I thought I'd give you first refusal.'

"'Thank you, sir.'

"'Obviously, Snaebjorn would do it at the drop of a hat, but the truth is he's far too valuable to the expedition.'"

There are other such Blackadder moments, but the great appeal of Explorers of the New Century has more to do with funny-peculiar than funny-ha-ha. In the first 100 pages, the alert reader will pick up that something weird is going on, but you're unlikely to figure out what until shortly before it becomes explicit. Mills, an economical writer in an age of windbags, is also generous, scattering clues, encouraging the reader to work things out before he spells them out. You get to feel clever; Mills is cleverer by half, but never clever-clever.

Alternative history, science fantasy, allegory, fable: there are moments when you think Explorers of the New Century could be any of these. It's all of them and yet none, enormous fun and deceptively profound.

Nicholas Royle's latest novel is 'Antwerp', published by Serpent's Tail