All The White Spaces: Fortitude or Devastation
I picked up Ally Wilkes' novel, All The White Spaces, on the recommendation of a few author and bookseller mutuals on Twitter. It was a thriller about an expedition to the Antarctic, post WWI, and while that wasn't in my normal reading sphere, neither was Alma Katsu's The Hunger, and I loved that. Plus, I was hearing it was wonderful from a bunch of people whose taste is exceptional. So I moved it to the top of my pile and started reading.
Readers, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do a meaningful deep-dive into this novel. I might just obsessively fangirl over it for eighteen paragraphs and call it good. I have read some wonderful novels in the past year, but All The White Spaces has proven to be my favorite, hands-down. The harrowing tale of Jonathan Morgan, who left his well-to-do life in England to search after his brothers' legacy -- and to find a life as his true gender -- joins an expedition to Antarctica by the famous James "Australis" Randall. When I say "join," I mean "begged his brothers' best friend to join, stuffed himself in a box and eventually got his stowaway ass discovered a few days out to sea." But that, dear friends, is only the beginning of a story of Jonathan's coming into his own, his acceptance among the crew -- and the slow, lurking realization that there is something terrible in the Land of Ice that threatens the lives and minds of the entire expedition.
Ally Wilkes, if you read this, I forgive you for killing all those dogs. I get it. You had to. Thank you for saving two. It was more than I was expecting. Also, thank you for giving Jonathan the delusion that "maybe they got away and are hunting seals on the coast and living their best lives." I have very serious triggers about animal death, and that allowed me to have that delusion too, instead of focusing obsessively on the poor creatures' fates all the time.
Devastation on the Ice
When Jonathan stows away on Randall's ship, the Fortitude, it's with the thought that he'll take part in history. His brothers, Rufus and Francis, always dreamed of following the great explorer on one of his expeditions to Antarctica, and when the two die on the front lines in France, Jonathan finds himself the last Morgan sibling able to carry out that wish. Rufus and Francis served with their childhood friend, Harry Cooper, and Jonathan manages to convince him to join the expedition. Harry helps the last Morgan sibling to make the transformation from "Jo" to "Jonathan," and helps him stowaway on the ship. When Jonathan is discovered, he manages to convince Randall to give him an opportunity to prove himself as a "spare" on the ship, so that he might be allowed to stay. But the expedition is doomed from the start. Someone -- or something -- has it out for the Fortitude and its crew, and by the time they crash into the southern continent, it's all about survival.
Wilkes is a force of nature when it comes to pacing this book. The first part, all about life at sea, filled me with endless pleasant memories of Horatio Hornblower and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. No matter the pace of the actual action, I was never left feeling like I wanted to "move on to the good parts." There were no parts that felt unnecessary. Everything had a place, even the parts where it felt as if the danger were merely a sort of unnamed, atmospheric dread in the background. As the expedition is picked off, one by one, it's always varied, and never feels monotonous. I was concerned that being in Jonathan's perspective the whole time would limit what could be experienced, and that was absolutely not the case. There is some gore, but the vast majority of it is exposure to the elements, and not something out of a slasher novel. (If you get sick at depictions of extreme frostbite, this may not be the book for you.)
Now is the part where I make a confession. Most of you know that I have panic triggers by now. If I want to read horror novels, I do better with spoilers. So I have a habit of always skimming the last few pages when I start out, so I know who I can get attached to, and who I should just give up on. So I can, in essence, prepare myself, knowing a little of the end result. I think the book has an ending that is perfect for the story presented, but if you're intending to read this, just know that it's probably not wise to get attached to too many of the characters.
First up is our protagonist, Jonathan Morgan. This man is written so. So. Well. He is admittedly naïve at the start, wanting to prove something to himself and honor the memories of his brothers by taking on this trip. He makes mistakes, he makes presumptions. But he's strong, and capable, a quick learner, with the heart of a lion. He owns up to his mistakes like a goddamned champion, he knows when to wield a gun and when to put it away (sometimes *cough*) and he is the first to really nail down the being that haunts them on the Ice, insofar as that's even possible. All he really wants, deep down, is both to see his brothers again, and to prove himself to be their equal. To finally, truly, be himself without the trappings of lace and false femininity. And, for whatever else, this adds a trace of a coming-of-age story to the book that makes him endearing. Maybe everything else is terrible. Maybe they'll all die out there. But dying as Jonathan Morgan, even in horrific circumstances, would still be a life lived, and not a life passed by.
I admit, I was noticing some "good" tension between Jonathan and another character, and while it didn't come to fruition (and perhaps was only in my head) I'd like to think that they ended up lifelong close friends, and maybe something else someday. After all, one thing Jonathan deeply wanted was to be known. To be known as himself, in a way that, he eventually realized, even his parents and brothers hadn't known. And if Jonathan found one thing in Antarctica? He found himself. And he let himself be known. In the midst of that horrible tragedy, that's something worth fighting for.
Harry Cooper is Jonathan's friend, reluctant companion, and the best friend of the two Morgan boys who died on the front lines. Unlike Jonathan, Harry is certainly not cut out for the explorer's life. But he stays, because Jonathan insists on staying, and he would rather die than let him go alone. He's loyal, dutiful, and kind -- also misinformed, stubborn, and makes some very hard mistakes. But I love how Wilkes never presents him as anything more than a good, flawed human, whose guilt over the Morgan brothers' deaths and his love for Jonathan make him easy prey for the entities in the great, endless black.
James "Australis" Randall is the head of the expedition, and the third character I'd like to discuss. He is a legend in Jonathan's mind at the beginning, and he, like literally everyone else in this expedition, is a good, flawed human, torn apart by the demons in his past -- in this case the death of his son, Charlie. He is, at his essence, a leader and explorer worth every bit of the renown given him; prior to this, he'd led two Antarctic expeditions with no losses. Even his family motto is "Fortitude or Devastation." This expedition has a distinct emphasis on "devastation," but he does his best, though his own mind is also easy prey for the creatures in the night. He leads them to glory; he leads them to ruin. He is a man hopelessly bound by stubborn pride that won't allow him to make pragmatic decisions, right down to accepting family that might bring his reputation shame. But he is also a man who loves deeply, and fights for those under his command. Even -- and perhaps especially -- the ones no one else wants.
The last person I'd like to discuss is James Tarlington, the chief scientist on the expedition. This man is a mystery wrapped in a stubborn-ass enigma. The one no one wanted on the ship because of his history as a "conscientious objector" (one who was locked up for refusing the draft), he came anyway, at the request of Randall. He acted suspiciously, put up with the hatred -- especially by Jonathan, at first -- and honestly gave no one a reason to trust him. And I get it. When I read the end of the book, I really get it. But I would just like to state, for the record, how much I want to take this skinny bundle of pent-up emotions and sit him down with a thick blanket, hand him a cup of soup and a cookie, and just give the damn man a hug. God knows he deserves it. Unfortunately, I can't talk too much about him without spoilers, because his story comes out as the story unravels. But I have a weak spot for intellectuals with kind spirits who can't always decide if they have the will to live. Extra points if they're queer (because gay love is the best love, and I don't make the rules.) But he is definitely not what he seems at first, as anyone familiar with what the hate-to-love/hate-to-friendship trope looks like can tell you. And, spoiler alert: it's okay to get attached to him.
I love it when books get deep. I love it more when they do it in such a way where it makes you feel lighter, like you've learned something about yourself, instead of like you've been hit over the head with a large metal hammer. Horror books these days are somehow the best at doing this, and All The White Spaces is no exception. First of all, I love that gender and sexuality is not a theme in this book. "But Jami," you say. "Aren't you bisexual? Why would this make you happy?"
Because this isn't a story about being trans, or being queer. There are trans and queer people here, living their lives, going through shit, being right, being wrong, learning who they are, and otherwise being well-written, thoughtful, dynamic characters who are not defined by their gender or sexuality. Jonathan absolutely learns about what it means to be Jonathan Morgan in the course of this book. He absolutely learns who he is. But it's presented so naturally, without stilting or awkwardness. Jonathan and both the other queer characters are presented as people, not as archetypes or caricatures. I support queer rights, and damnit, I support queer wrongs. I support the people in this book being themselves, because it's characters written like this that give straight, cis readers a chance to see themselves. A chance to fall in love with the characters and then go "wow. They have names. They have desires and I really hope they don't die." And then, maybe, they extend that to the cute bisexual couple with the cats across the street. (That couple is me and my wife, by the way.) Also, two out of three of the queer characters live to the end, and that's freaking terrific.
(Note: this was written by a queer author, who definitely knows that process of discovery for herself. Brava, Ally Wilkes. You scored one for us all.)
There's also a lot in here about self-knowledge, and facing your past, your regrets, and your demons. I mean, it starts out as "the South can do things to a man" but ultimately, the South couldn't do anything to the people there that they hadn't already started doing to themselves. The creatures in the dark took their regrets, their losses, their fears, and turned them into a ghostly reality that steered the men to madness and murder. In the end, bravery and courage were only worth so much. Honor and decisiveness were a mixed bag that could lead to salvation or ruin. Only the self-aware ones, only the ones who had faced their past and had knowledge and peace within themselves could resist the evil that lurked out in the snow. And isn't that something we can all take from this? Doing the work, and taking the time to find peace, to be known as you are, and to place trust in those who have done the same? That's the best kind of magic.
The Writing Style
I honestly was astounded that this was Wilkes' debut novel (at least with large publishing? I know she's written other things.) I do admit, I had to go back and find things I'd missed because I wouldn't understand something. But I don't think that was the fault of Wilkes' style; I think I became excited by what I was reading, and began reading faster than my powers of retention could handle. Then I'd miss details, and all of a sudden, I found myself clueless about something that happened two paragraphs later. Quite frankly, her words filled me with glee and I found myself getting too excited to process it all correctly.
The book was split into five sections, each with their own chapters. I found it easy to tackle by reading one section per day, because each of the sections was bookmarked by a dark page, so I could see my progress easily. More books should do this.
Wilkes wrote in a flowing prose that I can only hope to one day emulate. It was accessible, but it still felt appropriate for the time period in which it was placed. And her research! Oh my god, the amount of research put into this book was above and beyond. This is obviously written by a person who was excited about her subject matter and wanted to get it right. Plus, there are several recommendations for additional reading at the tail end of the book, which I found immensely gratifying. The dialogue, likewise, felt natural for the time period, but didn't feel stilted to my modern eye. That kind of balance is more difficult than one might think. Some authors go all the way with accuracy and make dialogue that's difficult to digest (and therefore not fun to read), or they throw the finger at historical accuracy and don't even try, which usually ends up feeling wrong, and out of place.
Finally, there is nothing I love more than front and back matter. I am an incredibly ADHD reader, so when there's a large cast, I find myself halfway through going "who the hell was that again?" So Wilkes was kind enough to list them all, and their position on the expedition, at the front. This was partially because she didn't introduce them all. And why would she? By the time Jonathan got done shaking hands, they would have been halfway through the book. This felt much more organic. When a book takes place in a fantasy world, I love seeing maps and pronunciation guides and vocabulary lists. To the point that I get a little petulant when they're not there, because I won't goddamn remember anything you're talking about by chapter five. I know I'm not the only one.
All The White Spaces is a book I will honestly recommend to anyone who will stand still long enough. I know not all of you like horror. That's okay. This is a story I honestly think will be okay for even people who aren't that big on the genre. Make an exception, and go out of your comfort zone, and I can almost guarantee that you will feel so rewarded at the end. This book is everything I'd hoped it would be and more. I am so glad it was recommended to me, and it will be a book I re-read at least twice. (Maybe don't read it when your thermostat is out, because if you're cold, then I can tell you from experience that shit starts getting a bit too real.)
Also, Ally Wilkes is coming out with a second book this December! When I found out, I scared my wife with my high-pitched squeal of delight. Ally, thank you for writing a book that made me feel like I felt about books when I was younger. Excited, slightly obsessed, but ultimately walking away with that sense of blithe, otherworldly wonderment, like you've just been transported back from another universe and don't know simple things, like how to use your hands or talk to people. This book is a phenomenal experience for a winter's day, and I promise you won't walk away disappointed.
PS: I just found a trigger page on her own website! https://www.allywilkes.com/general-8 See if it's right for you.
Purchase This Book
Powell's City of Books (available only in hardback)
My copy of the book, backlit against my front window on a winter's day. Persie tried to photobomb this shot, but ultimately, the calico did not end up as a guest star (again.)