The Ice Cauldron is a historical steampunk adventure set in the Arctic.
Age Group: Teen
“The ice hides many things; it can devour whole ships against all will and striving. Who would brave such horrors for anything less than the glory of the Empire, the finding of the Northwest Passage? But now we hunt a man who chose the ice for itself, not for glory but for its hiding places, that he might make horrors of his own.”
In 1850, Royal Navy ship Freya sets out for the Arctic in search of the Wayland Expedition, feared lost on its mission to find the Northwest Passage through the ice. Aboard sails thirteen-year-old Tom Ashwood, desperate to find his beloved brother Will, a Wayland crewman. Two years later, the last starving survivor of the Freya‘s disastrous voyage, Tom is rescued from the polar ice-fields by the strange steamship Hephaestus and meets its eccentric crew, led by the imposing and enigmatic Captain Lilith Haydon.
Tom is devastated to find his frostbitten foot has been amputated and replaced with an ornate prosthesis, but soon finds out that Haydon and others have similar replacements, extraordinary and advanced devices made by sardonic inventor Ravenscar. When the ship is attacked by hideous mechanical creatures Tom learns the chilling truth about explorer Sir James Wayland, his theft of Ravenscar’s groundbreaking work, and the Hephaestus’ secret mission.
As the jaws of the Arctic close round them Tom and his allies endure searing cold and bitter hunger, unseen killers, onboard treachery and a brutal trek on foot across the merciless ice before the lost expedition is found at last and, faced with the horror of Wayland’s rogue experiments, Tom must either join or avenge his brother.
“You’re the Captain?” Tom said weakly.
The woman smiled like a sabre, lifting an ironic eyebrow as if she knew the roots of Tom’s surprise and found them tediously predictable. “Indeed, sir. Captain Lilith Haydon, of the Hephaestus. And no, I did not gain my post through mutiny or piracy or any other fancied crime, though you’ll have gathered from the composition of my crew that we are not…” Her lip curled. “… a Navy ship.”
Her voice was cultured, soft traces of some regional accent all but hammered out. Tom stammered an apology, but the Captain shook her head. “It’s good to see you awake, Mister Ashwood, though I arrived in time to see you’d had a shock.” Her eyes flicked towards a shamefaced Rory Chance. “But Mister Chance was right on one count. On this ship you’re far from alone in your injury, and you’ll get no better schooling on living with it.”
A slight pressure drew Tom’s attention to his hand, still clasped strongly in the Captain’s. Few went barehanded in the Arctic, even indoors; Haydon’s gloves were black and fingerless, but above the wool on her left hand the fingers that held Tom’s shone dully in the lamplight. Without comment, she released Tom and set about unbuttoning her shirtcuff; the sleeve was full and loose and Haydon calmly drew it back until her whole arm was exposed to the shoulder.
Tom stared. It was a rugged tarnished thing, bronze-dark, as nicked and battered as an old ship’s cannon, its joints and turnings far less ornate than Chance’s hand or Tom’s false foot but still extraordinary in their detail. Tom had seen replacement limbs before, crude pegs or hooks on wounded soldiers and ex-sailors and once, in a museum, a segmented iron hand that had been favoured by a knight; but not one of them approached the fluid artistry of Captain Haydon’s arm. The metal was pierced – for lightness, he supposed – and as she lifted it without a shred of effort, stretched and flexed her fist and elbow, Tom gazed in fascination at the golden, clockwork smoothness of its inner mechanisms. Very faintly he could hear them, a watch-soft whispering of gears.