Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print (hardcover)
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.
5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons”
You and I have similar thoughts about Dan Simmons then. I haven’t read this; but, having read several of his other books your criticisms here are not at all surprising. I like a lot about his books – as you point out, there is great, deliberate craft and wonderfully creative plotting – but, I also agree that he goes on longer than anyone ever really needs. His female characters are frequently lacking, too, and I am disappointed to hear that there is never any insight into the mute character’s thoughts. Simmons is also very well-read and I sometimes get the feeling reading him that he’s reminding us of how well-read he is. It takes on a “look at me!” tone.
Sounds like this may be worth adding to my “to-be-read” pile, though, just a little lower on the list than some others.
We have a copy of Drood lying around the house, and The AV Club had a fascinating review with him a few years ago (linked here – it’s written by Cat Rambo!) which makes me interested in picking it up. But now your comments have dismayed me: If other books of his have the same problems as The Terror, I’m really sitting on the fence now about whether to read more Dan Simmons.
What else of his have you read?
I read Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion, which I liked quite a lot – particularly Hyperion. I have also read Drood and I am not sure I can recommend that one. It took me a *long* time to finish and I didn’t feel it had the payoff. Again, there were masterful strokes in the novel, and the concept was great, and I enjoy an unreliable narrator, but it really just didn’t work for me for the reasons I outlined above.
Even the Hyperion books have shades of those things, just not as much.
As someone who has read — and reread — and reviewed his work, I can recommend the following books from his ouevre: SONG OF KALI (a very good first novel, part thriller/part mainstream); CARRION COMFORT (an excellent horror novel involving psychic vampires that is one of the best fictional explanations for excessive modern-day violence); HYPERION and THE FALL OF HYPERION (space opera that leans on classical literature — Canterbury Tales, Eliot, Keats — for structure and resonance, and is, after a bit of a slow start with the first chapter of HYPERION, a fun and fast, space opera, read); ENDYMION and THE RISE OF ENDYMION (like the Hyperion books, these were written as one long novel, broken into two parts because it used to cost more to publish BIG books; set approx 200 years after the Hyperion books, this is the story of Anea — just a baby in the Hyperion books and her “protector”, Raul Endymion, as well as A. Bettek, a blue android. These books actually jump right into the space opera action: and the literary works which are used as templates in these books include HUCKLEBERRY FINN and, wait for it, the King James Bible — and the poetry of Keats, of course); THE CROOK FACTORY (the best of all of the mainstream thrillers or crime fiction books that Simmons has tried to write, this one being an historical thriller set in Cuba, with Ernest Hemingway playing a supporting role — and a cameo by Ian Fleming — fun stuff!); SUMMER OF NIGHT and A WINTER HAUNTING (the former title was written in 1990, and it pays a LOT of homage to the works of Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson, while also owing something to Stephen King’s IT; the latter title, while still a horror story — psychological or supernatural, your choice — is set years after the first, and allows Simmons to sort of “undo” everything that happened in “Summer” — or to, at least, take a different perspective on the story in the first book, sort of like looking through a prism from another side); and, finally, for a terrific selection of Simmons’s short fiction, hunt down a copy of LOVEDEATH, five excellent novellas: the two best are “Entropy’s Bed at Midnight” and “The Great Lover”.
The last good Simmons novel, mentioned above, came out in late 2000, early 2001, entitled A WINTER HAUNTING. There have been lots of other novels (at least three of which are tied — via the recurring characters — to SUMMER OF NIGHT), but they are merely okay thrillers (CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT, FIRES OF EDEN), not quite successful science fiction (THE HOLLOW MAN), pretty good, but not great, mainstream (PHASES OF GRAVITY), okay crime fiction (HARDCASE, HARD FREEZE, HARD AS NAILS), or a really (REALLY) bad thriller (DARWIN’S BLADE).
Around 2000, just after finishing “Winter”, Simmons was hit by clinical depression. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything one way or the other, but ALL of his books since then have been either almost-great (THE TERROR) a real messl (ILIUM and OLYMPOS, another sci-fi duology), plotless (DROOD, which featured a terrific character in the fictional version of Wilkie Collins), or just plain bad (BLACK HILLS, and the truly awful FLASHBACK). Along with writing a bunch of really bad books in the last ten years, Simmons used to spend time writing rightwing rants and screeds on his website (which now seems to have disappeared — or lost its funding — thank goodness).
Stick with the first bunch, mentioned in the long (Simmons-style) paragraph, and you won’t go wrong. And if you want to narrow it down to just a handful, then it should be HYPERION, THE FALL OF HYPERION, ENDYMION and THE RISE OF ENDYMION — a group of books which bought Simmons his small bit of fame, because they are truly fun to read.
Vint, great comment. I’ve always enjoyed Simmons as a writer but the books have been getting worse. I had more time for Black Hills but I was shocked at how terrible Flash Back was. Felt like I was reading some grimy xeroxed hate zine.
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