Friday, 18 April 2008

Lost On Ice

This novel, in size and weight, was a real brick. I wasn't exaggerating about its climate control properties - reading over 600 pages of Arctic weather descriptions has a profound effect on the mind. I didn't really hate it, but it's not something I'd recommend.

Arctic slaughter

first published in The Star, 18 April 2008

The quest for the Northwest Passage, the fabled naval route across the North Pole to the riches of the East, has long confounded explorers and sailors. In 1845, Englishman Sir John Franklin set sail with two ships, Erebus and Terror, in search of the route – and never returned. The fate of Franklin's exploration team is fictionalised in The Terror.

The novel, which includes real and (possibly) fictional characters, begins months after both ships ran aground in the Arctic. Although Franklin is their de facto leader, the protagonist is Francis Crozier, captain of the HMS Terror and primary witness to the drama on the ice, who struggles to keep his crew in line (one of the novel's many flashbacks pin the blame on Franklin for the mishap). With supplies dwindling, bad weather and little hope of rescue, the crew from both ships face extreme hardship. Compounding the perils is a supernatural presence that is preying on the men.

As if that's not enough, the busy captain also has to keep an eye on a mute Eskimo beauty the crew dubs Lady Silence, who mysteriously blundered into their midst. In no time she's firing up the imaginations of the land-locked sailors, adding to Crozier's growing list of headaches.

Franklin eventually dies, leaving Crozier in command. Betrayal, suicide, murder, cannibalism, disease (scurvy, in particular), the cold and the mystery creature continue to whittle the group down to size. On top of all that, the stoic, no-nonsense officer would later be challenged by mutinous crewmembers led by a snivelling character everybody loves to hate. A typical day in the captain's cabin.

Wait – did I say "drama"? OK, I'm being generous. The promise of a "white-knuckle thriller" evaporates along with the story's glacial progress (mine turned white due to the strain of holding up and turning the pages of the big 769-page novel). In his efforts to entertain us, Simmons reduces the expedition members to crude, one-dimensional versions of their actual selves and serves them to the beast and the wilderness. You feel no pity for any of them as they perish one by one. If not for the Eskimos (apart from Lady Silence), The Terror is nothing more than a weekend slaughterfest at a Roman coliseum featuring foul-mouthed angmoh sailors, with the author in the emperor's seat.

The storyline often drifts between the past and present – or dream and reality, making it hard to follow. The flashbacks do shed some light to the crewmembers' backgrounds but you still can't relate to them enough to empathise with their plight.

The "supernatural presence" hounding the men? Sounds either like the polar bear from the TV series Lost – or Frosty the Snowman. There are also allusions to the creature's mythical origins and its connection with Crozier's enigmatic guest. It's rare for a reader to cheer for the monster, but that's exactly what I ended up doing.

On the other hand, going through the novel does feel like you're slogging through the Arctic snow, feeling cold, tired and hungry and asking repeatedly, "Are we there yet?" At some point I found myself turning off the air-conditioner. A testament to Simmons' ability to create very realistic backdrops.

Politics, greed, the fear of the unknown, and the fury of the elements – The Terror gives us an idea of the obstacles faced by those who helped open the trade routes leading to the proliferation of spices, tea, Starbucks and KFC. However, it falls short of its lofty goals as a page-turning thriller.

In the early 20th century, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to fully navigate the Northwest Passage. In 2005, global warming opened up enough of the frozen north for a ship to sail the entire length of the fabled route.

The Terror
Dan Simmons
Little, Brown and Company
769 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-11328-1


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