The Terror: A Novel
1 journaler for this copy...
I've long been fascinated by accounts of the lost Franklin Expedition, and have read quite a few historical, biographical, and scientific books on the subject (including Frozen in Time). This seems to be a blend of the actual expedition's history (which should have had more than enough drama for several novels) and a supernatural element that sounds, from the cover-blurb, something like a Wendigo or perhaps a Lovecraftian being; and, while I like each of those elements on their own, I wasn't sure they'd assemble into a respectable novel. But I was agreeably surprised.
What a whopper, though. It took me nearly a week to read this - that's a very long time, for me. The book's not just a thick one, it's pretty densely-written; lots of information to impart, most of it a VERY detailed description of what life must have been like on ice-bound ships in the Canadian Arctic in the 1800s... Oh, there's plenty of artistic license too, but I've read quite a few memoirs of actual Arctic and Antarctic expeditions and most of this rings true. (There's even some historical trivia that takes place long after the expedition; we get to see it courtesy of one character's dreams. I got the feeling that the dreams weren't all that important to the plot but did give the author a chance to show of more of his research, including the otherwise obscure linkage between Arctic explorer/artist Dr. Kane and one of the table-rapping-spiritualist Fox sisters. (See, I can brag about my research, too!))
[Some mild spoilers follow...]
The one question that I had at the beginning - why did Simmons add a supernatural element to a story that was a thundering great adventure/suspense/mystery tale in its own right - eventually got answered, but for most of the book I was still wondering why he'd bothered. The "Terror" in question (a play on the emotion it invoked and the name of one of the two ships) took the form of a huge, savage entity that appeared early on and, seemingly at random, mauled or slaughtered members of the crew; was it an immense rogue polar bear, or something much worse? [The betting's on "worse", but you'll have to go a long way into the book to find out!]
The story is told in back-and-forth time slices, and begins with the crew in dire straits, then flashes back to the formation of the expedition, and then toggles back and forth between points in time and different members of the crew - we get the viewpoints of a handful of different characters, though the primary view is that of Frances Crozier, captain of the Terror.
[Side note here: as far as I could tell, all of the characters listed were actual crew members on the real-life expedition, and the book cites historical fact and quotes actual letters, up to the point where the expedition disappeared. Given its fidelity up to that point, the disclaimer up front about "any similarity to real persons... is coincidental" seems a bit odd. Since Simmons has taken many of the ordinary seamen and ships' officers and turned them into heroes or villains (some of a particularly nasty stripe), the disclaimer had to be necessary - but it began to bug me to see the real names of real people who died in what must have been a really awful manner used as fiction-fodder, especially the ones who became the worst villains. I know some of the crew have relatives living - one of them attended the disinterment of his great-great-grand-uncle in Frozen in Time - and I wonder what they think of the artistic license taken here?]
Anyway, back to the story. As an account of arctic travel, adventure, danger, and disaster, the book's enthralling, if perhaps a bit more detailed than is strictly necessary for fiction. By the end I felt that I'd actually been on the expedition, that's how immersed I became! This enhanced the fear factor when "the Terror" added its own random attacks to all the other perils the crew faced, but I don't know if it'll add to the book's general popularity. [Another problem for some readers will be the nature of the story; we know from history that none of Franklin's men were seen again, other than in a few scattered accounts by Inuit people, and those tailed off a few years after the expedition sailed. So reading the book and getting to like some of the characters is just a setup for pain; you know that they're going to die sooner or later...]
In addition to the historically-accurate cast of characters, Simmons adds a mysterious, mute Inuit woman-child who alternately fascinates and terrifies the crew. For much of the book I found her presence (which was rare, as she seemed able to disappear for long intervals) more puzzling than anything else, and again I thought "why'd he add this element? The story's fine without it!" Eventually, though, the threads start to come together, and the added element makes this something more than a historical-disaster epic. I found that I rather liked the result... although I would have enjoyed a straightforward, non-supernatural version of the story as well!
[Entertaining side note: the dedication includes an odd set of names, including Dmitri Tiomkin (famed for his theatrical soundtrack scores), Howard Hawkes and James Arness. I was tickled to find that my guess about the relationship of the names was correct, and it may suggest another inspiration for some aspects of the novel, but that connection's not as close as I thought it was going to be.]
p.s. The book's also available in audio, read by the wonderful Simon Vance. And there's a TV Tropes page that may be of interest.
WILD RELEASE NOTES:
[See other recent releases in NH here.]