Friday, February 11, 2011
Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Historical fiction/thriller
What a gripping, compelling piece of literature. Dan Simmons is a masterful word-weaver, and he shines his brightest in the pages of The Terror.
The Terror is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books- which is saying something for me. This is my second time through it, and I enjoyed it just as much if not more, re-reading every line with the full backdrop of the story in mind. It is a little complicated, so knowing the general outlines before going back for the details really helped in filling in the images and indeterminacies in my mind.
Terror follows the factual Lost Franklin Expedition to discover the Northwest Passage in 1845, which was lost and never recovered. Simmons creates incredibly colorful and human characters from the true historical faces of the sailors and officers. Told in alternating viewpoints as the chapters change, we hear from mostly Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, Captain of HMS Terror, Dr. Goodsir, the surgeon's assistant aboard Erebus, Sir John Franklin himself, and John Irving, a young third lieutenant on Terror (Irving is my personal favorite). Although the first chapter occurs in 1847, the rest of the story is told in a series of flashbacks in different viewpoints. In Simmons' traditional style of not holding back a single detail, we cringe at the terrible conditions of the icy north, the death of many of the various officers and seamen, and the terrible creature that holds all of the men in bondage in the terrible wasteland of white. The story moves forward, and it seems as though there is no misfortune which does not befall the two ships. And then, as if in a dream, we see the end coming.
Simmons is a master of foreshadowing. In only the second chapter, he begins foreshadowing the conditions which would eventually befall Franklin's men in the extremes of their fight to survive. Through their trials and hardships, we see the darkest in them come out- the darkness of taking the weak way out to survive, surrendering their humanity to retain their vitality. It's heartbreaking to watch men that we became close to give up hope and either die of debilitating scurvy, poison, or give up their humanity and take the weak way out.
Despite the change of perspective, time, and location between chapters, I found that the telling was masterful and beautiful. Often when writers attempt that kind of T.S. Eliot-like shifting, I find it jarring, but not here. The changes play out like a movie's shifting in camera angle rather than a change in scenery. Crozier becomes as close to me as someone I know personally, someone who has taken a much darker angle on life. He is incredibly human and touching, his flashbacks memorable and vivid.
Simmons also does something rather unique- he blends Esquimaux (I'm going to stay with the traditional French spelling) mythology and language with the history of exploration of northern Canada and the search for the Northwest Passage, even pulling some of their monsters and gods into the physical fabric of the story. As I progressed through the later part of the story, I found myself almost learning the ancient Esquimaux language, the words resonating as I read the story and echoing through my head as familiar terms, almost as easy as their English meanings.
One of the best parts of the book is that it is so easy to follow. The plot itself, while convoluted and twisting, is understandable for two main reasons: Simmons' excellent word choice and arrangements, and the fact that he restates information often. The first is a necessary quality of any good writers; the second is, while sometimes droll and redundant, amazingly helpful in The Terror. Simmons restates the names of the men and their positions often enough to make them seem human and to help the reader easily remember who they are. He also restates what happens to the men later in the book as Crozier is taking a death count in his head- writing name, occupation, age, and cause of death, even if we knew the character fairly well.
Altogether, this a heartbreaking and enthralling piece of literature. Read it as soon as possible. I do have to warn you that some of the scenes depicting the violence done by the Thing on the Ice is not for the fainthearted or squeamish (Simmons excludes no details- I cried in several circumstances where my favored characters died), you should be able to handle it as 'showing, not telling'. The hardback copies (which I recommend you get- it's a beautiful printing) run on the expensive side- $26.00 from the Hatchette Book Group USA- and the eBook is a little pricier at $15. It is a nearly 900 page book- that tends to happen. I was really fortunate and picked this one up in a used pile for $5.00 (:D). But if your library has it, that's pretty good. I will warn you that you may be borrowing it again, though.
That's all for today. Happy reading, my pageturners!
"Winter follows summer.
Light and darkness complete one another.
Life and death complete one another.
You and I complete one another.
Outside, the Tuunbaq walks in night.
Where we touch,
there is light.
Everything is in balance."