I’ve decided to ditch the “Reading challenge” portion of my book review titles. This was the 12th book that I read this year, and dear Lord, was it a doozy.
About the book: It is 1847. The two boats from the Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage – the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror – have been locked within the pack ice of the Arctic for well over a year. However, the steady depletion of coal, food, and supplies is not the only hardship that both crews have to face, for the arrival of a mute Inuit woman has coincided with the predations of a terrible supernatural creature with a craving for human flesh. Now Captain Frances Crozier, the highest-ranking officer still alive on this cursed expedition, has to determine how reach safety while evading both the monster stalking them and the mutinous thoughts growing within his crew.
What I liked: The opening of the book was planned out with care, as Simmons switched between different characters and different points of view. He painstakingly set up the environment and stakes of the story – the ships being frozen on the ice, the crew having the startlingly incompetent Sir John Franklin as commander, and there being barely enough coal to keep warm. I could sense that Simmons was building a strong house, and that he was laying down the planks and foundation with precision. Every chapter, every new development, every switch from one character to another, screamed one word: Deliberation.
In particular, I liked the slow buildup and unfurling of two crucial scenes: The disastrous Grand Carnivale out on the ice, and Crozier’s agony soon afterwards as he gave up drinking cold turkey and went through an agonizing detoxification process, complete with hallucinations and delirium tremens.
Astute readers will note that the Grand Carnivale sequence is an extended reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. I am not so astute, as I haven’t read Poe, but I do read Wikipedia, so I understood the basics of the reference. It impresses and pleases me when an author pays such attention to pacing, structure, and literary allusions. It tells me that the author cares. It also tells me that they take their readers seriously, and expect the same level of care and attention in return.
What I disliked: Despite the respect I felt Simmons was paying his readers, this book was far too long. Reading it was a protracted affair, full of doubt – rather like the Franklin Expedition described within. I don’t know if the book’s length was deliberate in order to exhaust readers, but I suspect that Simmons would not find such a meta-effect unwelcome. However, I also felt a perverse sense of pride as I complained about The Terror book to my friends and coworkers – it felt oddly satisfying to heft this brick up into the air and declare that it was too long to be enjoyable. Ultimately, I finished it by giving myself a goal of reading at least 50 pages during every commute to and from work, effectively making it feel like a school assignment. I’m unsure why it was so difficult to read The Terror, as I read Justin Cronin’s The Passage (which was approximately the same length) last summer and finished it in less than a week.
Another problem was the lack of both a glossary and a character list in the book. There were over 100 men on both ships and the majority of them were referred to by name throughout the text; it would have been invaluable to have a list of all of the crew members, and a glossary explaining all of the naval terms, in order to help me understand who they were and what they were doing. In particular, one early conversation between the various officers of both ships included two participants who were both named John, and the only way to distinguish between the two was that one was referred to as “Sir John” and the other “Captain Sir John.” Trying to keep all of the names straight in this and other instances made me dizzy.
Finally, the closing chapters of the book were a dramatic, abrupt shift. After hundreds of pages of slogging through ice, starvation, scurvy, mutiny, and cannibalism, we move instead into a discourse on Inuit mythology and the origins of the snow-monster. I understand why this was included – you can’t just introduce a crazy man-eating monster in the Arctic larger and more cunning than a polar bear and not expect people to wonder where it came from – but the move away from the Franklin Expedition crew members came out of left field. It also disturbed me that in all of the pages devoted to the viewpoints of the crew members there was no chapter similarly devoted to Lady Silence’s viewpoint. She is an important character, and vital to the survival of Crozier, yet we never experience her thoughts.
The verdict: Simmons has skill – the effort which he takes to establish location and weave together the various viewpoints of the story are obvious – but The Terror was such a slog that my appreciation of it is muted. I spent so much time reading it that to give up on it would have felt like a waste, and would have seriously set back my book review efforts here. This is the first book I read in 2012 that left me sitting on the fence.
Next up: The Steel Seraglio, by Mike Carey, Louise Carey, and Linda Carey.