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Onyx reviews: The Abominable by Dan Simmons

The Abominable is not about what readers might anticipate based on its title. If an author who is known to write horror novels sets one on Mount Everest, it is natural for people to assume that the climbers will, at some point, be beset by yetis, aka abominable snowmen. They do, in fact, encounter something they consider abominable, but it is in many ways worse than furry monsters.

The book opens with twenty pages of what seems like an author introduction. A man named Dan Simmons, whose wife is Karen, who lives in Colorado, future author of The Terror, talks about meeting an elderly, dying man named Jacob "Jake" Perry in 1991. Simmons wants to hear about Perry's adventures during an Antarctic expedition with Admiral Byrd in the 1930s. He later castigates himself for not following up on certain hints Perry dropped during their conversation. In 2011, he receives a stack of handwritten journals the man left for him after his death that went astray for decades.

The rest of the book consists of the text of Perry's journals, so The Abominable falls into the category of "found manuscript" novels. Perry is a young American mountaineer who hooked up with two other climbers, one British, one French in the 1920s. The former is Richard Davis Deacon, known as "the Deacon," and the latter is Jean-Claude "J.C." Clairoux, a fully accredited Chamonix Guide. Deacon is in his late thirties, J.C. is twenty-five and Perry is younger still. Each climber, though, has his own particular strengths, which makes them a formidable team when tackling difficult mountains, such as the Matterhorn, which is where Perry's journal finds them in the beginning.

Mount Everest has yet to be conquered in 1924. A recent failed attempt cost the lives of two highly respected climbers: George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, whose bodies were not recovered. No one knows if they made it to the summit or not. This tragedy has put on hold further attempts on the mountain, which is regarded by the British as theirs. 

Mallory and Irvine aren't the only ones who have died on that precipice. A British lord named Percival Bromley supposedly vanished there, too. His family hires the Deacon, who possesses some noble blood, to undertake an unauthorized quest to recover the body (or, less likely, find him alive and bring him home), although reports of where he was last seen are conflicting and unreliable. After embarking on several test climbs to develop their skills and a strategy, the three men are ready to set out for Nepal and Tibet, armed with some of the latest climbing technology. They also have an ample supply of "British air," bottled oxygen to keep from hallucinating at higher altitudes, where the air is too thin to sustain life for long.

There is a catch, of course. Since the mission is being funded by the Bromleys, they get to name a fourth party, which leads to a power struggle between the Deacon and the family emissary, Reggie Bromley-Montfort. However, Reggie controls the purse strings and has connections that make their journey smoother, while at the same time adding an interesting dynamic to the group.

Climbing Everest in the 1920s isn't as simple as traveling to the base of the mountain and going up its side. Simply getting there takes weeks on foot and mule, dragging along tons of supplies through perilous territory. They need enough food, water and other supplies to sustain a small army. They even bring along a mobile hospital and a doctor. Climbing is perilous business, with risks of altitude sickness, snow-blindness and frostbite, not to mention the obvious danger of falling. Simmons is only too delighted to relate what happens to a body that falls down a mountain. It isn't pretty. Plus there's the small matter that this is an unauthorized climb. No one else in the world knows they are out there, and there could be serious repercussions if they are caught.

It isn't an easy job for a writer to make the details of how a mountain like Everest is climbed as interesting as Simmons does, but he pulls it off. It isn't a straight up climb. There's a lot of going up and down along the way. Climbers have to acclimatize and descend. The more advanced climbers beat paths through the snow and run ropes to facilitate the way for the sherpas and other attendants who are carrying provisions and gear. As many as seven camps are established along the way and even when the group has reached the sixth camp, they are sometimes forced to go all the way back down to the first or second level. Weather is a huge factor, with storms causing white-out conditions and threatening to blow people off the slope. Many of the scenes are quite harrowing and, as with The Terror, readers will likely find themselves suffering through the frigid scenes with the characters.

As much as the Deacon wants to be the first to summit Everest, he is constantly reminded that this is actually a recovery mission. Finding Bromley is revealed, late in the novel, to be more than a sentimental goal. The body is a McGuffin and within it lies another. The mission has far reaching implications, especially during this fraught time when Europe seems to be building toward another great conflict. Perry and his friends saw evidence of this tension firsthand during a trip to Germany to acquire some of the latest tools they needed for their climb. If readers are willing to accept the improbable reasons why Percy Bromley ended up on the mountain, everything else will fall into place.This mission, which played an important part in world history, has remained unknown until Simmons received Perry's notes.

The mountain is dangerous enough. There are many ways to die, and most of them are horrific. Though the lamas, who consider the mountain they call Omonlongma to be holy, have murals depicting yetis slaughtering people in their temples, the climbers encounter something even more deadly. The novel becomes an adventure akin to The Eiger Sanction, though it is more obsessive about the actual details of climbing. It's a harrowing tale, deftly told. 

As usual, Simmons interjects real-life characters, including the historical climbers but also a handful of political figures who enter the story late. This isn't alternate history—the twentieth century occurs in exactly the way it did in real life—but Simmons uses interstitial moments in historical figures' biographies to create fictional scenes that add a degree of verisimilitude. Unlike with most McGuffins, readers actually get to "see" this one get put to use.

Despite its length (over 660 pages), The Abominable is a fairly fast read. The characters are interesting and affable. Perry's point of view as the youngest member of the team affords him the ability to see things the way the reader does. It is a little detail-heavy, but that's Simmons' hallmark. He's done all the heavy lifting—the extensive research into mountaineering—and readers get to reap the rewards of it.

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