Day 202-- the Terror

If you can fault Dan Simmons for anything, it would probably be for being too ambitious. He's a genre writer, but instead of sticking to one arena, he lets his battles spill over into others. The Terror, his latest novel, is categorically historical fiction. But it also spills over into horror, mystery, supernatural parable and eventually a fable--all without shedding the skin of a historical novel.

The Terror is based around an expedition led by Sir John Franklin, an English commander chosen to find the legendary Northwest Passage. After a few bone-headed choices, the expedition's two ships--the Erebus and the Terror--are trapped in the Arctic ice for three years. A few hard decisions later, the crew abandons the ships and tries to escape the North Pole through various avenues. None of the men survive.

That's the historical answer, at least; Simmons follows history fairly well, showing the crew dwindle due to scurvy, starvation, exposure, and eventually murder and cannibalism. It's pretty unnerving; the book could've stood as a "horror" novel easily without any addition. But there's also something killing off the sailors with chilling--almost sadistic--efficiency. Add in some subplots involving mutiny, a carnival on the ice based off of an Edgar Allen Poe story, and a mysterious mute's a big book, basically. Over 700 pages.

Simmons does a really good job of making it tie together. I was worried at first--I had reached the half-way point and felt like everything was wrapping up. I was wrong; the novel is told from the perspectives of various crew members, and they're varied enough to provide plenty of plot. The main character is Captain Francis Crozier, the Irish commander of the Terror. Looked down upon because of his nationality, Crozier veers between fuming alcoholic and the only man who can get his men to safety. The remaining characters are immensely interesting: Sir John, the bumbling expedition commander; Hickey, the scheming mutineer; Blakey, the only man who survived the thing on the ice more than once; Fitzjames, Sir John's melancholy-but-capable subordinate commander; Goodsir, the kindly surgeon who tells his stories through journal entries, and so on. There are maybe 20 other characters, all of them nuanced enough to stay believable.

The Terror isn't carried by the characters alone--the narrative is wonderfully paced (even though it took me a week to realize it), it's detailed and realistic without sinking into boring territory, and it has a very unique ending. Very, very unique. Simmons captures the conflict of man against himself, nature, other cultures and even his own belief system, but never by falling into caricature. One of the most chilling aspects if how the men--all from a Christian society (superficially, at least) --often end up acting more pagan than the natives they encounter.

The novel isn't perfect. As engaging as it was, the book could've shed 100 pages and not suffered. Some of the violent scenes and sexual bits were a bit too much (I have a list of words I cannot stomach, and Simmons used almost all of them in a one scene). And as interesting as the ending was, it left me slightly unfulfilled--it worked, but not in a way that it should've.

The Terror has only been on bookstore shelves for a few months, but it's become a word-of-mouth bestseller. Despite the few gripes I have, I'm glad it's doing well.

PS--here's a song that fits the mood of the well. In fact, I might want to perform this at my upcoming coffee house performance.

posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 3/26/2007 11:54:00 PM,


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