The Terror is a fictional tale based on the real life experience of the notoriously doomed John Franklin Expedition.
The two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, sailed from England in 1845. Their aim was to explore the area around Beechey Island and Cornwallis Island before attempting to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Circle to the Pacific Ocean. However, as they pressed on southward they became stuck and their ships were frozen in the ice for two years along the west coast of King William Island. Sir John Franklin, the expedition leader, decided to winter on Beechey Island against the advice of other seasoned explorers and naval officers, including Francis Crozier, the book’s central character. Eventually, the men, facing starvation, cold and scurvy, abandoned ships and took off on foot across King William Island in a desperate attempt to try to find a passage south and, hopefully, rescue. They never made it and the fate of the ships was a mystery up to this year.
Dan Simmons adds to that an ice monster out of the darkest spiritual realms and a local Inuit girl with an agenda of her own.
My first word of advice: if you don’t like horrors, don’t even touch The Terror. Some of its chapters were so inhumanly cruel that I had to skim them. I didn’t want to have nightmares; mind you I like dark stories, the darker the better (but only up to a point as it seems). Still I grant it: Simmons knows how to create monsters out of the ugliest pits of hell who hide, very conveniently, under human skin, waiting for favourable circumstances to resurface. A chilling thought – almost as chilling as the Arctic climate – which could be a leitmotiv of this novel.
When it comes to different POVs and the narration itself I found the book strangely uneven. It seemed the author couldn’t decide what to do with the historical material he based it on. Should it be just a background of a sci-fi novel? Should the heroic battle with hostile environment whilst lacking adequate clothing and nutrition play the main role, with sci-fi elements scattered around just to spice the story up?
Personally I would be happier if the sci-fi threads dominated the narration but it happened only very near the end. That twist, although greeted by me with a sigh of relief, was a strange counterbalance to the entire historical side of the book which, overall, seemed too long-winded and too wordy. I really didn’t need to know the whole drama behind badly soldered food cans (the food was a real bargain…until it started to kill the sailors with lead) or the whole history of British Arctic expeditions (sheer madness if you ask me but who I am to judge).
A long novel which would profit of some professional editing. Some parts were brilliant, some – plainly too long and boring. There were also passages describing such cruelty that it made my toes curl. Was it worth reading? Yes it was – providing you like very dark stories of doomed expeditions and you have a lot of free time.