The Terror, by Dan Simmons

The Terror - Dan Simmons

I love feeling like I've been taken on a journey when I read, and this book spans years, multiple character perspectives, and the wasteland that is the arctic. I wouldn't call it a "saga," but by the end I couldn't believe where I ended up given where I started.


The Terror is based on the lost Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. Given evidence later found at the sites where the expedition was known to have been, all the crew likely died, from scurvy, starvation, and lead poisoning, in addition to ailments like tuberculosis (not known to be contagious at the time) and pneumonia. Yet most remains were never found, while others were amazingly well preserved in the ice.


This means that going into the novel, you know most or all of the characters will die. But you can't help but get attached to particular characters, to hope for their survival, and to lament their deaths. I had to pause my reading a few times because I was so upset at the course of events.


Simmons invents around the known facts, his chief invention being a monster that hunts and kills many of the crew, on the ice and even on their ships. You don't know exactly what this monster is; the characters mostly assume it's a polar bear, but it's too clever and malicious. The monster has a mysterious connection to an Inuit (Esquimaux) girl who's been taken in (or imprisoned) by the crew. By the end of the novel, all is made clear, and the most surprising thing is that the monster is less an invention of the author's than it would seem.


In addition to the "heroes" of the story, there are definite villains. In particular, one caulker's mate who is referred to as a "sea lawyer." He sows discord, is manipulative...and fucks other men. For a time it concerned me that those traits were associated with one another, given a history in pop culture of gay characters being villains. But later two other queer characters' perspectives are explored, a younger and older man who were in love, had a relationship on shore, and are now good friends who rarely get to see one another during the voyage. For me this mostly counteracts the idea of queerness as associated with villainy.


My only other concern with the storytelling was Captain Crozier's "second sight," which felt like it came out of nowhere. I know we're supposed to assume that his alcoholism for much of the story has blocked it, but some sort of foreshadowing would have been appreciated (though I wouldn't rule out the possibility that I missed some).


This book was suspenseful, funny, sad, violent, and thrilling. Above all, I thought about the actual human beings who made the voyage and died on the ice looking for something they only accidentally may have found.