Friday, January 23, 2009

Book Review: "The Terror"

I'm not sure whether reading Dan Simmons' The Terror during some of the coldest weather Boston has seen in a decade was a good idea or a poor one. It certainly helped with the atmospherics: one night a week or so ago I was reading in my living room, blankets tucked around me as the wind howled ferociously outside and wind chills dipped to around -10. And in the book, the temperatures without the wind were almost fifty degrees below that mark, and the characters were marooned on a ship frozen in thick sea-ice, never quite getting dry and frequently losing bits of themselves to frostbite when they ventured outside. Certainly stopped me from complaining about the cold for a day or two.

Simmons' book is a fictional ending to a real story, the famed Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, which sailed from England in 1845 aboard the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Neither the ships nor the 128 men who comprised their crews were ever seen alive again, although remnants of the expedition and some human bones were later discovered near Canada's King William Island (and in August 2008 Parks Canada announced a new search for the wrecked ships using side-scan sonar).

Using the known facts about the expedition and what had to have been some heavy-duty background research, Simmons has woven together the story of the expedition from its first moments in the ice through the bitter end. Drawing on Inuit mythology, he adds a certain supernatural twist: a beastly critter on the ice who begins to stalk and prey on the expedition's crewmen and seems impervious to all human effort. It's a rich story, filled with the gory details of an Arctic expedition gone incredibly, disastrously wrong.

While the book (which clocks in at 766 pages) could perhaps have been edited down a bit, and while I did find a creeping anachronism or two, I was overall greatly impressed with The Terror. I recommend it, but while you're reading, keep a warm blanket handy for when things get chilly.


Bookseller Bill said...

This is pretty much how I felt about it. My chief complaint was that it would have been fine just as historical fiction, w/o the supernatural element thrown in. That ended up seeming almost tangential to the story.

JBD said...

Yeah I thought that too, I wasn't sure what the point of that was if not to just throw in the mythological sections at the end.