The Terror – Dan Simmons

Have just finished this excellent book, a fantasy novel set against historical events.

the_terror1In 1845, Sir John Franklin led an expedition to find the fabled Northwest passage, an artic sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific. The two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were fitted with steam engines as well as traditional sail, retractable screws and rudders, and had reinforced bows of oak and iron, for icebreaking.

The ships set sail from Greenhithe in May 1845, and stopped at Greenland to be resupplied by support ships with fresh meat and provisions. HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were last seen by whalers in Baffin Bay, before sailing into Lancaster Sound. The ships were never seen again.

The factual elements of Simmon’s book are based on research and discoveries made by later expeditions. It is known that the ships were trapped in ice off King William Island, and eventually abandoned, after a year and a half, when the expected summer thaw did not free them. A cairn found by a later expedition in 1859 contained two messages, both written on the same piece of paper. The first, dated 28 May 1847, said “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well “. Written in the margin was a later note, dated 25 April 1848 – saying that just weeks after the first note, on 11 June 1847, twenty-four officers and crew had died, including Franklin. Captain Francis Crozier, captain of HMS Terror, was now in command, and the 105 survivors planned to start out the next day, heading south.

Simmon’s novel begins with Crozier in command, in October 1847, and the narrative moves both forward and back in time. The story is told by multiple narrators, merging the known facts with fictional diaries and logs. Simmon’s crew face the same dangers as the real life expedition did – the cold, starvation, scurvy – as well as “the thing on the ice” – The Terror – which appears to be hunting the crew themselves.

Almost a thousand pages, and I was gripped to the end. The characterisations were particularly effective, I think, with individual voices. Because of this, and perhaps also because I know these characters were based on real people, I found myself actually fearing for them throughout the novel.

When reading a story where it is known that no survivors were ever found, you feel that the end, when it finally comes, will have no surprises. But even there, Simmons book was extremely satisfying.

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