Book Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons

9/10 An immersive historical horror

In 1845, the Franklin Expedition, the most prepared and modernized expedition to sail in search of the Northwest Passage, finds itself trapped in the ice and stalked by a mysterious beast.

Story

The Terror is an imaginative history of the famous Franklin Expedition that was lost on a mission to find the Northwest Passage. Dan Simmons attempts to answer the question of what happened to the expedition by introducing a stalking monster. The characters, most of whom were based on real-life counterparts, and the setting are full of historical details. I’m not especially versed in this time period, so I can’t speak to the accuracy, but Simmons does list his sources (of which there are many).

For such a long book that history offers little to fill with, Simmons does an excellent job pacing the story and creating events that slowly form the saga of the two ships, Erebus and Terror. Though some of these events feel more like filler in the grand scheme of the book, there’s always tension interspersed with action, and plenty of characters to explore on an intimate level. And I never felt lost navigating the various relationships between characters.

Writing

While some readers were bothered by the repetition of description, the crushing ice, scraping noises, and the oppressive cold, I didn’t have a problem with it. I felt the descriptions were well-placed to keep enough other things going on in between that it never became annoying or boring for me. Another book I read recently was not so successful.

Simmons’ descriptions are vivid but don’t overstay their welcome or become incomprehensibly purple. But some chapters do feel a bit like filler with no real consequence to the plot, and there are some gratuitous details during two sex scenes. Also, for readers concerned with the topic, as the novel is true to history in terms of the attitudes of imperial Britain, the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the period are on full display, but the narration and events certainly don’t reward or glorify these views.

Conclusion

For fans of history and horror, The Terror excels at both. It’s rich, immersive, filled with memorable characters, and creates an engaging mythos to answer the mystery of the Franklin Expedition. This is a book I’ll happily re-read. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the AMC mini-series (not available on services I use), so I can’t make any comments of comparison. Worth noting that in recent years, both Erebus and Terror have been re-discovered beneath the water, so we may someday soon find out what really happened to the Franklin Expedition.

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