An exciting quest story set in a wonderfully inventive world that feels totally real. Prepare to enter a magical adventure where unicorns eat iced gems, polar bears can be kept as pets and cabbages can bite.
Twelve-year-old Stella Starflake Pearl is convinced she is meant to be an explorer just like her adopted dad, Felix Evelyn Pearl. After all, everyone knows that only explorers have three names. There is just one problem – the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club that Felix is a member of has very strict rules about who can become a junior explorer and they don’t allow girls. Luckily Felix is known for bending the rules and he’s also putting up most of the money for the latest expedition. Stella is thrilled to be allowed to join the trip to the coldest part of the icelands but soon finds that she gets more than she bargained for.
The opening chapters of The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club are the best I’ve read for a long time. From the first page, we’re drawn into a wonderfully inventive world that feels totally real. Not once do we question the existence of unicorns, polar bears that can be kept as pets, boys who can whisper to wolves, magicians or junior healers.
The idea of the four explorer clubs, and the competition between them, is worth the cover price of this book alone. I’m sure I won’t be alone in enjoying the club rules at the back of the book which list the essential items each Club requires for an expedition (from champagne and a gramophone to a pith helmet and camel-grooming kit). The obsession with moustaches in the Polar Bears Explorers’ Club is particularly inspired and I couldn’t help but smile when, of all the amazing things the young adventurers return with, the Club President is most impressed with a moustache spoon (i.e. a special spoon that protects the user’s moustache when drinking soup).
Once we’ve acclimatised to the world, we move on to what is a standard quest story with some lovely set pieces. These include the description of the marble igloo Polar Bear Explorers’ Club with its white brick chimneys, the introduction of the tiny creatures responsible for frostbite (the ‘frosties’), a secret enchanted palace in the centre of the icelands and – by far the best of all – carnivorous cabbages.
While the concept and world building is this book’s greatest strength, the plot and the characters are also excellent. Told from Stella’s perspective we are close to her throughout the story but we also have three very strong, and distinctly different, supporting characters in Shay, Beanie and Ethan. Unsurprisingly my favourite is the off-hand and often rude Ethan from the Ocean Squid Explorers’ Club. This might be because he’s the one that the bad things always happen to. (He gets bitten by the frosties and one of the cabbages and almost falls to his death when they try to climb aboard a boat.) However, the real reason, the reader probably loves Ethan is we quickly suspect there is more to him than the insolent exterior and we’re rooting for him to show his true colours.
By the end of the book adventures have been had, and lifelong friendships made, and the story wraps up nicely. However, just when everything is resolved, the last three paragraphs give us a hint of a different dangerous and exciting adventure (that has to be book 2). Inspired!
Publication date: November 2017
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Website: Alex Bell