Review: ‘The Terror’ by Dan Simmons (repost)

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I’m going to periodically repost some of my older book reviews, until I can get caught up on my reading enough to post regular reviews. This post was originally published in November 2009.

When I first picked up the book The Terror (aff link) by Dan Simmons off the shelf at my local Barnes & Noble, I automatically thought it’d be yet another novel based on some sort of nefarious international terrorist plot. I was both right and wrong.. I read the synopsis on the inside cover and realized that the novel had nothing to do with terrorism. The story takes place in the cold Arctic Sea, explorers aboard two ships from the Royal British Navy are trying to find the northwest passage. And the terror the men of the two ships face is literally and figuratively quite chilling.

The Arctic is one of the most inhospitable regions of the earth with constant snow storms, temperatures dropping to -50°(F) and colder. During the long winters the sun never makes an appearance for months at a time. This is the environment that the crews (126 men total at the beginning of the novel) of the ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus must endure. For two years they have been stuck in the ice. Their rations are dwindling and the coal that heats the ship is quickly running out.

Captain Crozier of the HMS Terror is very much the lead character. However, the third-person narrative jumps from character to character with each chapter, providing the reader with many different perspectives on events as they unfold. This use of limited third-person is a clever way to present this epic adventure to readers.

Much of the time spent by the crew is just trying to survive. They hunt polar bears and other wildlife to extend their rations and try to conserve as much coal as they can to heat the two ships, turning the ships into virtual freezers. Yet as far as daily life on the ships go, it is as if they are out at sea and not stuck in the ice. Men still stand watch around the ship. The officers struggle to maintain order and discipline by enforcing the Royal Navy’s rules and regulations.

Life on board the HMS Terror is made more interesting by an Eskimo girl (spelled ‘Esquimaux’ in the novel) who lives aboard the ship. The crew named her Silent because her tongue had been removed sometime before she was found. She can’t understand any English and the sailors have no way of communicating with her. Captain Crozier ensures she is fed and assigns one of his officers to see that she is safe. Most of the crew despises her, calling her a savage, mostly because she is not Christian and is much different than them.

At one point, a group of sailors make plans to kill Silent. Captain Crozier quickly puts an end to the near-mutinous plan by telling the crew that Silent is the only one among them who knows how to survive on the ice. They need her. If Silent is killed, then they have almost no chance to survive when they must abandon ship because of the crushing ice.

But Dan Simmons does not let the plot limp on by writing only about daily life aboard a naval ship. To further complicate the plight of the sailors, a monster lurks on the ice. No one has really gotten a good view of the Thing, and those who have met a violent death. The vague descriptions of this monster make it sound like a polar bear on steroids – one that can bite off a man’s head with one bite. The monster terrorizes the sailors, snatching them up one by one on the ice, and then on the ship.

This mysterious beast is never fully explained or described.. Other than making for some action-packed reading, I think the beast serves another purpose – to act as a metaphor for the dangers of life in the arctic. Furthermore, I think the beast also represents the way the sailors think of the Eskimos, as savages with no moral conscience. Every time the crew tries to foil the monster, it somehow manages to outsmart them and survive the barrage of bullets. As the novel progresses, however, the beast becomes less and less of an issue as scurvy and freezing temperatures become more of a killer than any monster  on the ice.

I’m not going to give away any further plot details. I also won’t spoil the ending for those who want to read this novel. I will say, however, that the ending left me unsatisfied. There are too many unanswered questions by the time I reached the last page of the novel.

The ending was interesting and kept me hooked until the end. I just didn’t get the closure a lot of other novels provide by the end. Other readers might find this vague ending  as another one of the novel’s fine brush strokes that make it so interesting to read. Indeed, the ending is as mysterious as the beast on the ice. There is a huge surprise at the ending, though, that is totally unexpected. I never saw it coming.

I am definitely recommending this novel to all. The hardcover version is long, coming in at 766 pages. Don’t let that deter you, the story clips right along and you’ll find yourself shivering at the descriptions of the cold arctic weather like I did.

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