Author: Dan Simmons
He knew something that the men did not; namely that the Devil trying to kill them up here in the Devil’s Kingdom was not just the white-furred thing killing and eating them one be one, but everything here — the unrelenting cold, the squeezing ice, the electrical storms, the uncanny lack of seals and whales and birds and walruses and land animals, the endless encroachment of the pack ice, the bergs that plowed their way through the solid white sea not even leaving a single ship’s length lee of open water behind them, the sudden white-earthquake up-eruption of pressure ridges, the dancing stars, the shoddily tinned cans of food now turned to poison, the summers that did not come, the leads that did not open — everything. The monster on the ice was just another manifestation of a devil that wanted them dead. And that wanted them to suffer. Pg. 198
The Terror by Dan Simmons tells the story of the missing ships from Captain John Franklin’s expedition through the northwest passage in the mid 1800’s. If you’re like me and don’t know anything about the actual event from history, this just reads like great historical fiction. The fact that most of the characters are based on real life figures adds to the intrigue. I routinely found myself surprised when important characters would die violently and suddenly. And oh, how many ways there are to die in this book.
The very first chapter of the book begins with the ships stuck in ice and the expedition already gone terribly wrong. I don’t consider it spoilers to say that this is a book where a lot of people die in a variety of ways. The two ships are frozen in the ice for the bulk of the novel, and the crew are forced to deal with all the usual threats of being alone at sea (storms, starvation, scurvy) as well as a seemingly invulnerable beast that can appear and disappear at a moment’s notice. Although it’s tempting to shelve this book next to something like Jaws, I’d say it actually belongs more with the werewolves and vampires section.
For me, that distinction is where The Terror dropped off from a phenomenal book to merely a very good one. I was totally on board with everything that was going on in the book, but felt the ultimate explanation via history of the world of Eskimos took away more than it added. Despite my love of David Lynch, one thing I’m not a huge fan of in books is a dream sequence. I kind of rolled my eyes through the Sir Francis Crozier dream sequences early on, but by the time he’s living folklore in his dreams it was way too much abstract storytelling for my taste.
That minor complaint aside, this was a really great book. The details about the weather, jobs on the ship, and packing for a long trip all felt authentic. It’s the type of fiction that probably left me with a more memorable impression for the era than a non-fiction book because the imagery was so vivid. For a book with over a hundred characters, there were several great characters to stand out among the plethora of red shirts. However, the characters were always secondary to the unique atmosphere. The shifting perspectives throughout the book made sure that no character was more important than the struggle for survival. The Terror is a great title for the book, both he namesake of one of the two ships and an accurate summary of the final years of the expedition as described by Simmons.