Book Review - The Terror by Dan Simmons
Updated: May 9, 2018
Fictional retelling of Capt. Sir John Franklin's doomed voyage to the Arctic, complete with tribal monsters and plenty of bloodletting.
Holy hell...what did I just read? I finished the book yesterday, and I'm still parsing my thoughts into a cohesive whole.
It's not that this is the most amazing book I've ever read, or the most entertaining, or the most well-written...but damn is this thing fantastic. I can honestly say that I've never read anything quite like it. Take the historical detail of In The Heart Of The Sea, mix in some Stephen King worthy dread and horror, throw in a comprehensive look at the Esquimaux (Eskimo) peoples and their cultures, and add a liberal splash of Patrick O'Brian naval officer shenanigans, and you get...something much greater than the sum of those parts. It's hard to describe exactly, but I'll do my best.
The toughest part of all would be to categorize this tale...because it almost defies categorization. The basic structure of the tale is the true, and tragic, expedition of Sir John Franklin to search for a way through the Northwest Passage, which would open up a new trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Though other European explorers had attempted the same passage, Sir John Franklin's two ships, Erebus and Terror, managed to go farther than any of their peers. If you are looking for a very accurate, if heavily fictionalized, account of this passage, then this book is for you. Perusing the sources researched for this novel, it's clear that Mr. Simmons did his homework quite extensively. The vagaries of ship life are painstakingly detailed, but are not rendered in such detail as to be dull. The official happenings of official characters are explored, though only a few get a truly detailed treatment (only a few likely had details to use). Some of the people in this book were celebrated explorers in the 1800’s, living almost as celebrities given that so few people chose the explorer lifestyle.
And yes, most of these characters truly existed, though of course nearly everything that transpires within these pages is speculation...but very well handled speculation. The actual history is the framework, but the character interactions, and the terror they face, is the colorful detail within that framework.
And if that's all this book was, it would still be a great nautical tale for those curious about how events MAY have played out for our ill fated voyagers. But then we take these characters, add in a great horrific entity that is slowly stalking them and thinning their numbers, and you have a truly epic historical horror/adventure tale.
And when I say epic, I don't mean it in the traditional sense. This is actually a very self-contained tale, taking place almost exclusively (sans flashbacks) in the same couple of hundreds of square miles in the desolate arctic. But the sheer depth of the detail, the broad canvas of history that it pulls from, and the internal and external struggles that these men faced those years in the frozen north give it a grand scope.
The narration is done in both third and first person perspective, in addition to epistolary segments taken from personal diaries and letters. We have numerous viewpoint characters, though Captain Crozier is essentially the "main" protagonist of the tale, with the largest number of chapters and exposition moments throughout the book. The supporting cast of characters are richly drawn and varied; seamen and doctors, marines and aristocrats, and everything in between. There's some truly noble men, some truly despicable men, and a whole lot of ordinary people stuck in an extraordinary circumstance.
And I would be entirely remiss if I didn’t mention Lady Silence, the taciturn Esquimaux girl who becomes quite central to the plot. Though she never speaks, for reasons disclosed early on, she is still one of the fulcrums of the story, and undoubtedly my favorite character. To mention anything else about her would be to diminish her impact, so I’ll leave it at that.
For the hardships our hardy explorers face, that gets a little complicated. There are human villains...and then there is the Terror itself. A well imagined creature born of myth from the local artic area, the Terror is cunning, vicious, and seemingly unstoppable. There are moments of true tension and dread when the men are at their most exposed, when you just know that the creature is lurking close. Mr. Simmons handles these moments with expert precision.
Ironically enough, however, is that the creature may not even be the worst thing these hapless sailors have to face. Conditions in the northern seas are appalling at the least, nightmarish at worst. Temperatures rarely rise above freezing, and the cold permeates everything. These men spent YEARS in the frozen wastes, where nothing grows, and every second is a struggle to stay warm, stay sane, stay alive. The environment is just as much a character as the men themselves, and just as dangerous, or more so, to their survival than the creature on the ice. Strangely enough, while I was reading this book, we were having one of the worst snow storms I can remember here in Utah. I have over 3’ of snow on my roof, and more than that surrounding my house. I’m constantly shoveling, salting, and shoveling some more. And yet, I remind myself, this is a just a SMALL fraction of what these explorers dealt with in the Arctic waters on a daily basis. I have nothing but mad respect for these, and other, real life explorers who braved these inhospitable conditions for years on end, with the threat of death always two steps behind.
It must be stated that this is NOT a short book. Nor is it an easy read. While it may not be quite as dense as Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (my current record holder for a dense read), it still requires effort to get through. It’s also quite graphic, with the language, gore, and trauma excellently conveyed. I also found myself laughing at some of the crews’ witticisms, as well as their rather colorful and creative curses.
One of the common criticisms of the book is that it’s overlong at parts. I have to agree, as some of the passages regarding the deteriorating health of the sailors certainly could have been shortened/omitted. I wouldn’t say that it was padding on the author’s part, so much as a vehicle to show the hardships these men endured. Still, it was occasionally too much, with a little more repetition than was necessary, and I sometimes found myself skipping words/sentences during these segments. And really, I think, that my only other complaint against the novel would be that at times I think it’s not sure what kind of story it wants to be. Like I said earlier, it reads quite a bit as a heavily fictionalized history lesson, until it takes a left turn into a more supernatural, and more traditional, historical drama.
That being said, the last fifth of the book is AMAZING. Simply amazing. I love where the tale takes some of our main characters, and the growth that one character in particular goes through. It was here that the novel took me completely by surprise, but it was a welcome surprise to be sure. It just felt a little…out of place given all that I’d read before.
So, is this novel for you? If you don’t mind the time investment or the graphic descriptions, and can handle the oppressive environment being constantly brought to the fore, then yes, this is a book you should check out. There’s really nothing else like it out there. Highly recommended!
5 out of 5 frostbitten and gnawed-upon stars!