Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007
Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group
US First Edition Hardcover
784 Pages; $25.99
Publication Date: 01-08-2007
Date Reviewed: 02-06-07
We look to novels for different types of experiences. Some novels we read to enjoy a fast-paced adventure. Still others lure us with immersive depictions of worlds, times or places unfamiliar to us. Others offer readers glimpses of the imaginary, snapshots from the myths and legends that we create both deliberately and accidentally. Few novels manage any of these individual modes successfully. 'The Terror' manages to be all three in a single cohesive work and offers a reading experience that is exciting, immersive and rewarding. Simmons achieves a literary style that is complex but straightforward. 'The Terror' is a grand adventure with an emotional and intellectual wallop.
The novel takes as its background a true story. In 1845, the British sent forth an expedition to find the Northwest Passage. HMS Erebus and HMS Terror left with a combined crew of 129 men, led by Sir John Franklin and Francis Crozier. The ships disappeared, and the ensuing search lasted more than thirty years. From this Simmons weaves a page-turning tale of human hubris coming face-to-face with unforgiving nature. But 'The Terror' is much more than the story of a doomed expedition into the arctic. Simmons novel evokes the thrill of myth, that primal cave-tale feel that short-circuits literary conventions and goes to the heart of story.
The architecture of this novel is ambitious. We start long after the ships were last actually seen in Baffin Bay, with things bad and getting worse. Supplies are short, the ships are trapped and something is hunting the men. It is intelligent and inimical, but even so, other dangers are more pressing. Food is short. Scurvy is starting to take its toll. Francis Crozier is beginning to realize that nobody may survive this trip. Danger is imminent and comes from a variety of sources. Simmons then backtracks to earlier in the expedition, when Sir John Franklin's rosy assessment of their chances still makes sense. And thus begins a complex set of switchbacks that move the story to and fro, inevitably towards tragedy. But this is no simple tragedy. Simmons uses faux journals, multiple viewpoints, staggered timelines and makes them seamless. As he imagines the slow journey of HMS Terror and Erebus into oblivion, he crosscuts and invents with breathtaking skill. 'The Terror' is thrilling to read by virtue of a literary skill that is utterly transparent.
Characters come to life in 'The Terror' through both third-person narrations from a variety of viewpoints and first-person faux journals. All of the characters are based on the actual men who sailed aboard Terror and Erebus. The journalist, Doctor Harry Goodsir, is a rather nebbish man, clearly in over his head as the novel begins, but who grows in an amazingly rendered arc over the course of the novel. Crozier is our main man, a bitter, competent captain who is the victim of class prejudice. As the novel begins he's a drunk who contemplates suicide when his whiskey runs out. Sir John Franklin is an inept leader who clings to his beliefs when he should long ago have abandoned them. This is a big novel, and there are many other characters beyond these, all of whom take on lives of their own. With this many characters, the peril for Simmons as a writer is nearly as great as the peril his explorers find themselves in, but he fares much better. Every man, woman and child is clearly created for the reader. You won’t need a list of the dramatis personae to keep track of everyone on board the two ships. You might need some days off when you embark on this journey, because you will not want to put the book down.
The thrills to be found in 'The Terror' are many and varied. There are superb set pieces that will etch themselves in your reading memory and become places you can go back to visit. Even though 'The Terror' is a historical novel based on lots of careful research, Simmons manages to inject a soupcon of the supernatural that actually enhances the realistic feel he creates. There are scenes of wonder, terror and the two mixed perfectly. Simmons draws on myths and magic realism to enchant the reader even while he uses the brutal facts of the arctic environment to entrap his characters.
For all the excellence you'll experience while you read the novel, your expectations for the ending might tend to be diminished. The superb set pieces, the engaging literary experimentation and complex structure are, after all, facing an imperious truth: nobody survived. The real blast of arctic air will not hit you until you turn that last page and experience Simmons' fitting finale, an ending that redeems the agonizing journey and rewards readers beyond their wildest expectations. Whatever you might think you are looking for when you began reading 'The Terror', whatever experience you seek as a reader, prepare to have those expectations dashed against a literary force as unknowable, as powerful the arctic itself — Dan Simmons.