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Onyx reviews: The Terror by Dan Simmons

Its ominous title seems to portend horror, but Dan Simmons' The Terror is more accurately described as an intensely researched, quasi-historical novel. The eponymous Terror is one of two ships that leave England in 1845 in search of the holy grail of the era—the mythical Northwest Passage across Canada's arctic. Any captain who charts this speculative shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific has his career and reputation made.

The men who set out on this quest are hardy souls indeed. They leave the comforts of their homes for a trek that will take years. The crews are aware of the possible hazards. If their timing is off, or if the climate is uncooperative, they risk being stuck in the arctic pack ice for months in -60° weather during days when the sun never rises and the only sound they hear outside the ship is the cracking and snapping of the ice. They carry enough provisions to for up to three years at sea, but not enough fuel to keep them warm. They might as well be on Mars once they become trapped, for there is no way for them to summon help.

The true story of HMS Terror, and its companion HMS Erebus, is one of the great mysteries of 19th century exploration. The Franklin expedition vanished after entering northern waters. Unanticipated delays got them off to a late start, and the popular theory is that they were ice-locked and died from a combination of cold, disease, injury and starvation. The Inuit told tales of white men starving to death and evidence of crew camps were located years later on nearby islands, but what really happened after they were last sighted will never be known.

Simmons uses the disappearance as the launching point for his novel. He learned everything known about the crew members, scrupulously researched the conditions such men might have experienced on their journey, and built a speculative tale about what befell them. In his version, the two ships are trapped in the ice for not one but two winters when the spring thaw fails to materialize. He postulates that some of their stores of food were tainted by botulism and lead from the solder used to seal the cans. For good measure, he throws in a supernatural element—a polar-bear-like monster that emerges from the eternal night to maim and kill the crew—and a tongueless Inuit woman dubbed Lady Silence who wanders in and out of HMS Terror at will.

Despite the potential of the tale, Simmons manages to create a novel without much suspense. An author recently described the narrative impulse by referring to "forward-leaning" sentences that lead inevitably and inexorably from one phrase to the next, carrying readers along like a torrent. If any sentences in The Terror are forward leaning, their tilt is measured in fractions of a degree. Readers are as at risk of becoming mired in the story as the crew of Terror is in the ice. It's a stultifyingly slow novel, and far too easy to put down. It's fascinating in its detail and its recreation of an era so different from ours, but it lacks momentum. The creature arrives from time to time like a dramatic device—the clichéd "man with a gun"—to break up the stasis, and there some brilliantly constructed set pieces—the "Masque of the Red Death"-inspired New Years Eve Carnivale, for example—but at 750-plus pages, the book is too long by at least a third. Perhaps by half.

Simmons' research shines through in every sentence. It's chilling—readers will feel in their bones what it must have been like to be so miserably cold all the time, to have clothing that never, ever dries out. To relish days when the mercury rises as high as the freezing mark, and to subsist on weevil-infested biscuits and tinned soups for month after month after month. His depiction of the illnesses that befall the crew is devastating. The ship's surgeon knows the word "scurvy" and recognized that it arises from a dietary deficiency, but he has no idea what missing nutrient is responsible. Not that it matters—he has no way to rectify the situation even if he did know. Their hunting expeditions fail to turn up anything to supplement their diet and the ice is far too thick for fishing.

And still they persist. The deaths in the first half of the book come either from accidents or by sporadic rampages by the terror from the ice. That the men do not succumb to despair is a minor miracle—or perhaps a figment of Simmons' imagination. It's hard to fathom that they continued to live their regimental lives, manning the ice-covered decks and keeping watch in the perpetual darkness. That they don't snap from the strain and mutiny or commit suicide. But these were different times and these people came perhaps from hardier stock.

The two characters that provide contrast and metaphor are Sir John Franklin, strong-headed captain of HMS Erebus, infamous for having eaten his shoes on a previous failed expedition, and Francis Crozier, HMS Terror's alcoholic captain and second in command on the journey. Where Franklin is decadent, eating on fine china, Crozier is common sense epitomized. He's always been in the shadow, an Irishman when such were considered second-class citizen. When he presides over weekly services, his sermons come from The Book of Leviathan, a secular volume about superstition and religion.

The Terror really gets going in the final third, when the crews are forced to abandon their ships and strike out across the ice in search of rescue. Readers will welcome being liberated from the claustrophobic ships. The ice has already crushed Erebus to death, and even if the ice thawed it's uncertain that Terror could be floated again or if the crew could navigate her if she did. The journey is fraught with hardship and peril. The thing on the ice continues to dog their path, their numbers dwindle as the hardships mount, and the men begin to doubt their leadership—but at least they're doing something.

Late in the game, Simmons begins to introduce native mythology. To be honest, he could have omitted these chapters entirely, or at least spread the lore out throughout. Placed as they are, these sections seem like a heavy-handed attempt to educate readers about what he's attempting in the final chapters. The eye slips easily across the pages, absorbing little. By this point in the book, some readers may be numb to their import.

In the end, what's it all about? Was it merely an exercise in research and speculation? It's not about surviving adversity, because the men don't survive. History tells us that. Is it a metaphor for the inevitable invasion of the white man ("kabloona") into the world of the Inuit?

Whatever it's intent, The Terror is a tour-de-force effort. The depth of characterization is stunning, though it probably wasn't necessary to delve into so many members of the expedition. Nice touches all—Simmons rarely disappoints—but in this case, the book seems self-indulgent. His appendices reveal the depth of his research. He describes the creation of this novel itself as "a particularly long arctic expedition."

Determined readers who make it to the end will be rewarded with a warm, beautiful denouement for certain characters, but they are advised to pack well for the journey lest they be stranded in the ice with Simmons, with no hope of rescue soon.

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