The Terror

by Dan Simmons

With luck he’d get almost two hours of a drunkard’s sleep before the next day of darkness and cold began. With luck, he thought as he drifted off, he wouldn’t wake at all.

The Terror is the fictionalized true story of Francis Crozier’s disastrous attempt to find a passage through the polar northern hemisphere. The author doesn’t skimp on the journey, giving you an adventure of death that clocks in at nearly 300,000 words–be prepared to commit. The journey is so full, so alive with struggle, once you’ve given it a chance you’ll be forced to see it through.

Soon after the voyage begins, two ships, The Terror and The Erebus become locked in ice, and not the brutal ice we know from the northern states here in the U.S., but ice so tough and thick and unyielding but yet still moving as an unstoppable force of nature it might as well be cruel, living, breathing stone. How to describe the climate so cold and dry that a mere minute of exposed skin causes frostbite in the best scenario?

And here’s where it gets really interesting. Simmons has a creature native to the frozen wastelands that’s hunting the men down while they’re locked in the ice, unable to move their ships and careening through the stores they had for the journey. Avoiding spoilers means leaving descriptions to the author, but this creature means instant death. And while this thing went about slaughtering sailors left and right, it was actually the least of their problems. An unstoppable killing machine paled in comparison to the elements with which these men contended, not for weeks or months but for years.

Simmons tackles an environment so brutal I was sitting in the warm California sun, baking, no shirt and no shoes, yet still freezing my ass off by living and breathing in the world transported to the reader. Remember Hoth, the ice planet from Star Wars? How they unwrapped scarves from their faces to yell at each other in the blistering cold? Uh-uh. That’s death here.

What makes this book so special isn’t the catastrophic true story. It isn’t the horrific conditions or the creature ripping and tearing through survivors. The Terror is so extraordinary because of the skill with which the author brings you there. He plants you there in a realm of death and dares you to keep reading. And it’s a dare you’ll accept, because there will be no choice.

The Terror is an example of monstrous skill, a literary work so cold and hostile to life it’ll drag you right out of your easy chair to the heart of misery, chipping away at your internal temperature till your fingers are so cold it’s difficult to turn the page. But you must.

Dan Simmons is a genius.

Maybe reading is a sort of curse is all I mean, concluded Fowler. Maybe it’s better for a man to stay inside his own mind.

5- (5?) stars


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