Starred Review. Hugo-winner Simmons (Olympos) brings the horrific trials and tribulations of arctic exploration vividly to life in this beautifully written historical, which injects a note of supernatural horror into the 1840s Franklin expedition and its doomed search for the Northwest Passage. Sir John Franklin, the leader of the expedition and captain of the Erebus, is an aging fool. Francis Crozier, his second in command and captain of the Terror, is a competent sailor, but embittered after years of seeing lesser men with better connections given preferment over him. With their two ships quickly trapped in pack ice, their voyage is a disaster from start to finish. Some men perish from disease, others from the cold, still others from botulism traced to tinned food purchased from the lowest bidder. Madness, mutiny and cannibalism follow. And then there's the monstrous creature from the ice, the thing like a polar bear but many times larger, possessed of a dark and vicious intelligence. This complex tale should find many devoted readers and add significantly to Simmons's already considerable reputation.
From The Washington Post
Reviewed by David Masiel
Faced with mutinous threats, general starvation, intense cold and something wrong with their tinned food supply (scurvy and lead poisoning appear rampant), Crozier provides leadership without arrogance. As the novel's protagonist, he is a man of the people, a realist, unlucky in love. As an Irishman in the British Royal Navy, he has been largely ignored by the Admiralty despite his stoic competence.
By contrast, Franklin represents most of what was wrong in early British Arctic exploration. His prior expeditions had met with minimal success, making him best known in England as "the man who ate his shoes," though given all the other things men ate to stay alive on Arctic expeditions, it's unclear why shoe leather would be singled out for ignominy. Goaded by his very public failings, Franklin retained his penchant for arrogant idealism and wasteful ritual. He brought along fine china and monogrammed silverware, among other "necessities." In the end, his primary mistake is cultural: Out of xenophobia he refuses to adopt local methods of travel, shelter and hunting. Yet to say that Sir John gets his just deserts is unfair if only because 128 others suffer the same fate.
Crozier recognizes the captain's weaknesses, and therein lies the novel's poignant sense of loss. He dispenses shipboard justice out of practical necessity rather than lofty idealism. In their desperate hours, he preaches not from the Bible favored by Franklin but from the "Book of Leviathan"--his own recitations from Thomas Hobbes, which, among other things, explains the birth of superstition and religion: "There was nothing which a Poet could introduce as a person in his Poem, which [man] did not make into either a God or a Divel." As the novel descends toward its hellish climax, the "Divel" chasing our crew--that "Thing on the ice"--transcends its monstrous nature and becomes the manifestation of earthly retribution, wild payback for the hubris of Western civilization.
The vehicle of that transcendence is Lady Silence, a mute Inuit girl who lives on the ship and goes at her own whim, providing a portal to Eskimo mythology and shamanism. Northern spiritual philosophy gives the world--and this novel--its ultimate balance, predicting the coming of kabloona ("pale people"), whose arrival brings "drunkenness and despair," melts the sea ice, kills off the white bear and calls forth the "End of Times." While Franklin's men are unable to escape the realities of starvation, brutal cold and the violent urge, Crozier's instinct for survival pushes the novel to its ethereal end.
There are fanciful (less than strictly factual) elements to the story, too, including a large creature that stalks the ships and kills men easily, a creature that is not merely physical, but spirit. And the final chapters of the book turn from realist representations of attempts at survival in the fatal north to mythic representations of Inuit culture and finally to a synthesis between the two.
One thing these inclusions certainly do is reveal the stark contrast between the European expedition's goals and methods (and the madness of these goals and methods) with the knowledge and skill the native people have in this land. The Englishmen carried with them, from England and then from their ships, cutlery, books, jewelry, trinkets. They did not know how to survive and yet they thought they would conquer this frozen world. Franklin's very insistence on pushing forward, his insistence that any day now the pack ice would melt away from the ships and reveal the Northwest Passage is, in this context, nothing short of insanity. The things that are described in the Inuit culture (communion with spirits, communion between humans that requires no speech, etc.) may seem like insanity to outsiders, but no more so than the European methods of exploration and survival seem like insanity when seen from the perspective of those who survive the severity of the Arctic circle.
The Terror is about the terror of the Other, the terror borne of a lack of understanding. The Terror is also about how we deal with that terror. Do we flail against it, try to beat it into submission, as did the Englishmen? Or do we learn to live with it, learn to appease it and live alongside it, as did the Inuit?
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.