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Publisher's Summary

The “exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing” (The New York Times) true survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly awry - with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter

“The energy of the narrative never flags.... Sancton has produced a thriller.” (The Wall Street Journal)

In August 1897, the young Belgian commandant Adrien de Gerlache set sail for a three-year expedition aboard the good ship Belgica with dreams of glory. His destination was the uncharted end of the earth: the icy continent of Antarctica. 

But de Gerlache’s plans to be first to the magnetic South Pole would swiftly go awry. After a series of costly setbacks, the commandant faced two bad options: turn back in defeat and spare his men the devastating Antarctic winter, or recklessly chase fame by sailing deeper into the freezing waters. De Gerlache sailed on, and soon the Belgica was stuck fast in the icy hold of the Bellingshausen Sea. When the sun set on the magnificent polar landscape one last time, the ship’s occupants were condemned to months of endless night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness and besieged by monotony, they descended into madness.

In Madhouse at the End of the Earth, Julian Sancton unfolds an epic story of adventure and horror for the ages. As the Belgica’s men teetered on the brink, de Gerlache relied increasingly on two young officers whose friendship had blossomed in captivity: the expedition’s lone American, Dr. Frederick Cook - half genius, half con man - whose later infamy would overshadow his brilliance on the Belgica; and the ship’s first mate, soon-to-be legendary Roald Amundsen, even in his youth the storybook picture of a sailor. Together, they would plan a last-ditch, nearly certain-to-fail escape from the ice - one that would either etch their names in history or doom them to a terrible fate at the ocean’s bottom.

Drawing on the diaries and journals of the Belgica’s crew and with exclusive access to the ship’s logbook, Sancton brings novelistic flair to a story of human extremes, one so remarkable that even today NASA studies it for research on isolation for future missions to Mars. Equal parts maritime thriller and gothic horror, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an unforgettable journey into the deep.

©2021 Julian Sancton (P)2021 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

Madhouse at the End of the Earth [is an] exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing account of the Belgica’s disastrous Antarctic expedition. Sancton uses...an extraordinary treasure trove...to tease out the personalities and fears and rivalries of his subjects [in] his increasingly harrowing descriptions of life on the Belgica.” (The New York Times

“An extraordinary tale of ambition, folly, heroism and survival, superbly told by Julian Sancton, who has rescued the Belgica’s story from relative obscurity and brought it to magnificent life...[a] splendid, beautifully written book.” (The Spectator)

“I started reading Madhouse at the End of the Earth...and I couldn’t stop. [It] reads like an adventure novel [and] is so detailed you can almost smell and taste it.” (Bon Appétit)

What listeners say about Madhouse at the End of the Earth

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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Excellent story

This is an excellent story but suffers from bad narration. The narrator reads this like a children's book, mispronounced names throughout set my teeth on edge. It can be tolerated because of the very interesting story of Cook, despite him not being a very likable man. Yes, I finished it but wish I had used my credit more wisely.

8 people found this helpful

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Well researched and an insane story

This was super interesting and a great read to follow up Endurance, though this expedition happened decades earlier. There’s a stark contrast between the two crews and their survival strategies. Looking at the late 1800s it’s pretty insane that only three people died on this journey and that they were able to save the ship. But what I found most fascinating was though their ego and negligence completely led to their situation, and despite not reaching their intended goal, the expedition still had tremendous scientific impact, not just with learning about Antarctica, but also with how humans deal with prolonged isolation. The author did a great job of ending the book with what happened to everyone and linking their findings to science today, particularly the mission to Mars. A super interesting read, though I didn’t love the audio version.

6 people found this helpful

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Unforgettable story of survival

The story of the Belgica, mostly lost to English-speaking audiences, is told here in new, harrowing, and exquisite detail. Sancton has tirelessly assembled an immersive story out of century-old documents spread across the world. It is an utterly engrossing and ultimately hope-filled read, in my opinion. Perhaps the greatest contribution to history will be a reevaluation of Dr. Cook’s contributions to the science of survival in extreme conditions, something that Sancton notes may be of acute interest in an era of future interplanetary travel to Mars.

5 people found this helpful

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Harrowing, Riveting, Eye-opening

After finishing this book, you’ll never take the sun for granted again.

Also, I dunno why people are ragging on the narrator. Sure, he’s a bit dry, but not as monotone or robotic as these reviews make him out to be. It’s actually about what I’d expect from a historical account. If you like your narration with an extra heaping of ham, sure, this narrator won’t be your style. But leave him alone, folks, he did a fine job (although the mispronunciations CAN be painful to hear, no arguments there)

3 people found this helpful

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Mighty fine

A fantastic book that rivals Endurance. and apparently short and to the point is not good enough for audible reviews

3 people found this helpful

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Superb story, but poor storytelling

The story was certainly interesting. I felt like the author’s transitions between characters and stories were so thin that you scarcely noticed he had changed topics. If I were to recommend this book it would only be for the story but not because it was a worthwhile read.

The author then goes on to lament climate change. It is his book and he is entitled to write in it whatever he chooses. However, I did not purchase the book to be lectured on climate change and so that was another mark against him. I would assume that many of the people who read books like this are much like myself… Gun toting, outdoorsy, alpha males who drive big trucks and have a little sympathy for lectures about naturally occurring phenomena, i.e. climate change.

I also could not decide whether I loved the narrator or hated him. Initially I was turned off by his performance but by the end of the book he seemed like a good fit for the story.

Overall, the book is lacking.

2 people found this helpful

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♫ A 3 Hour Tour♫

The crew of the ship didn't sign up for wintering in Antarctica (or did they?) but following a risky detour they find themselves stuck there. The author does a good job of setting the mood around the ship and the personalities aboard. This is a fascinating tale as most polar voyages are. I would say the book was somewhat ruined for me by reading a spoiler filled review which I felt gave too much of the story away. I enjoy getting through a book before reading what happened afterward in more detail. I will say I think if I hadn't read that spoiler filled synopsis before I might have enjoyed it more. Overall a great new book but I find myself comparing it to other polar voyage books I've listened to over the years and it wasn't as good as to me as the book "In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette" but not for lack of trying. If I had never listened to the Jeannette book this would probably be my favorite polar expedition narrative. The Jeannette expedition went so wildly wrong and the writer of that book left you on the edge of your seat for how it ends. Madhouse at the End of the Earth does a good job in its own right though and gives a lot extra history of the crew afterward on their successive expeditions and explains a lot leading up to the Belgica expedition. I also finished this book in 4 days, which I rarely do unless the book has kept my attention. So the author obviously keeps you, like the expedition members, trapped in the story. You'll enjoy it if you like history books.

2 people found this helpful

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Fantastic Journey

Being a fan of historical accounts of real life adventures and of historical fiction, I was drawn to this book as soon as it appeared in my Audible recommendations list.

Author Julian Sancton draws from numerous primary and secondary sources to weave an enjoyable and suspenseful tale that would be a tall one if not for its veracity.

Much more than a way to pass several hours of drive time, I found myself continuing to listen after reaching my destination to journey torward the satisfying conclusion.

Captivatingly written and narrated with dramatic flourish by Vikas Adam, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an entertaining story as well as a fascinating immersion into an intriguing world most will never experience in person.

2 people found this helpful

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Needs editing!

Author tried to use all his sources. Result is a burdened account with too much extraneous detail. Especially the beginning portion.

2 people found this helpful

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Brilliant x 3

A brilliantly researched, written, and performed book. Engrossing from beginning to end. Will listen to this one again.

1 person found this helpful