I can remember vividly the coldest I’ve ever been. No, it wasn’t a trip to either the north or south pole, nor a selfie at Mt. Everest. It was the end of winter in a drafty old house in Shorewood, WI, where I lived for a few months with a bunch of friends from college. To save money, the heat was kept on low, and each night I bundled up in many layers of clothes and blankets to try and stay warm. Never will I forget being so cold.
Dan Simmons is a gifted writer and researcher, especially when it comes to description. From the first chapter, The Terror grabs the reader with its snowballing descriptions of just…how…cold…these sailors are. Stuck in the arctic ice in a futile attempt to find the “Northwest Passage” north of Canada and through to China, the crews of two British navy ships, one call the Terror, battle the cold and the elements for survival. Oh. And an abominable snow monster.
Despite liking this novel, I have to say the true stories of these arctic explorations, doomed or not, are far more interesting. In the Kingdom of Ice, detailing the true story of the USS Jeannette stuck in the pack ice, I found riveting. Simmons’s rendition isn’t bad, though, but it is really long, probably a bit too long. And there wasn’t enough of the snow monster for my liking, and I’m not sure what I think of all the Eskimo stuff. It was just kind of strange, and I wasn’t sure how much if it was true to that culture.
The best thing about the novel is that it is a story about men. Women and women’s issues are not much to be seen here, which is a bit refreshing for a reader like me, who sometimes almost drowns in romance. The women in the story are viewed mostly from Frances Crozier, an officer who can’t seem to find a balance with them. He either sees them as whores or exotic beings on pedestals, and that he gets the girl at the end and keeps her seems a little unrealistic if you think of her as a real person. Nevertheless, there’s a sweet innocence about his perspective. Aside from all that, the story largely deals with men giving command and under command and how being stuck so far from civilization affects that dynamic. It is amazing that order does not come apart at the seams a lot earlier, considering what these sailors are up against. In fact, the mutiny seemed to come out of nowhere and Hickey, the villain, was too cartoonish for my taste.
Back to the snow monster. So I did try to read Simmons’ other cold tale, Abominable, but gave up as it took him what felt like hundreds of pages just to get them on the mountain. The description of climbing gear from the 1920s, although interesting in its own right, fast became a textbook on it, instead of details pushing the story along. Thankfully, in The Terror, Simmons gets to the action we want pretty quickly and is great at showing the men’s mounting fear of the creature attacking them. Then, towards the end, when they finally abandon their ships as they are all dying of scurvy, the snow monster is scarcely, inexplicably, to be seen until popping up to devour the villain (did I mention there are spoilers?) and spiritually circumcise Crozier (so weird).
A roaring good tale, despite its flaws, The Terror is good historical fiction. The perspectives of the men seemed to be from the characters’ time and modern views weren’t shoehorned in too much. The details of the ships and the environment really made me feel at times like I was there with them, and the descriptions of their various ailments as they succumbed to malnutrition and cold were heartbreaking. My next book to read from Simmons will probably be Drood. I saw the PBS movie of the Mystery of Edwin Drood and want to read the story that Charles Dickens never finished, and then see how Simmons ended it. Of course I also plan to give The Terror miniseries a try, but I have a much easier time reading about blood and gore than I do watching it. Some people are the reverse. Wonder why that is? Hmm. Must be a study on it somewhere…