In May of 1845 the Erebus and the Terror, two refitted ships of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy set sail from Greenhithe. Outfitted with the latest in steam engine technology (including retractable drills that could be pulled in to protect them from the ice) and new metal plating outside of their 14 inches of hardwood hull they sailed North on a quest to find the fabled Northwest Passage. They spent their first winter in Baffin Bay and then continued. They were never heard from again.
Known as the failed Franklin expedition – after the commander of the Erebus John Franklin – more than a century has passed and still little is known about what happened to them.
Dan Simmons tries to fill in some of those gaps. The Terror is a tragedy that the ancient Greeks would have loved. Betrayal, treachery, and plain human ignorance threaten to destroy the crews of Terror and Erebus if the cold and ice don’t kill them first.
After the death of John Franklin the command is left up to Terror’s captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier and Erebus first mate James Fitzjames. It is a desperate fight to survive in a harsh land where temperatures reach -100 degrees, the sun does not shine for several months of the year and their ships are being slowly crushed beneath them by the ever shifting and treacherous ice.
Then the food starts to run out. And the coal. The canned goods are poisoned by botulism and the solder on the cans is giving the men lead poisoning. Then there is the scurvy.
A hunting party returns one day with the body of an old Eskimo man they shot accompanied by his mute daughter. The soldiers name her Lady Silence and quickly come to regard her as a witch. For shortly after she shows up a monster – the sailors dub ‘The Terror’ starts talking and killing men. It stands twice as tall as the great polar bear and can rise up out of the ice and disappear back into it. Most of all it possesses a cunning that taunts Crozier and his men with rearranged pieces of corpses and brutally timed but seemingly random attacks that indicate a preternatural intelligence.
Between the cold, the scurvy and the ‘Terror’ I found myself alternately freezing (no mean feat in southern Arizona), starving and curious – I wanted to know what the creature was.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the novel is the characters. Some you will cheer for and depend on. Others you will hate with a burning passion.
To me that alone makes it a success but added to it is Simmon’s signature ability to write. The man just understands words and the way they fit together so intimately that they become a frozen wasteland of jutting jagged ice and it becomes easy to get lost and frozen.