IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides. Doubleday, 480 pp., $28.95.

'In the Kingdom of Ice" tells the story of an almost entirely forgotten episode that unfolded at the very end of the Age of Exploration. Three centuries after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci lent his name to a mysterious land mass in the Western Hemisphere, the United States of America sent off its own expedition to one of the last corners of the globe as yet unknown to man: the North Pole.

The men of the Jeannette hope for glory and fame. Instead, they discover an icebound "Heart of Darkness." They find that some of the most isolated parts of the globe have been degraded by man; and that untamed nature can bring out the worst and best in people.

It's 1879, and there are no satellites to warn the men of unseen hazards or freaky turns in the weather. The men might go to sleep sailing on an open ocean and find it completely frozen over the next morning.

Before the true adventure begins, however, Sides spends 15 chapters setting the stage for the expedition.

It's when the USS Jeannette finally sets sail from San Francisco that Sides' book comes most fully to life as a pulse-racing epic of endurance set against an exceedingly bizarre arctic backdrop.

In the Arctic sea, expedition leader George Washington De Long and his men search for a legendary place called Wrangle Land. It's been seen by local whalers but only as a shadow on the horizon. Wrangle might be an island, or the tip of a northern continent that reaches toward the pole itself. DeLong sails toward it -- and promptly gets stuck in the ice. He had expected to be icebound, but not a mere two months into his journey.

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Sides' descriptions of the physical challenges the men face and the eerie landscape that surrounds them are masterful. As DeLong and his crew attempt to save themselves, the story grows in suspense and psychological complexity.

More strange and fantastic turns follow, involving uncharted and uninhabited lands, and it pains me that I cannot describe them without spoiling the pleasure of those who have not yet read "In the Kingdom of Ice." Sides' book is a masterful work of history and storytelling, and it rewards patient readers with scenes of human strength and frailty they will long remember.