(2007) Dan Simmons, Bantam Books, £7.99, pbk, 936pp, ISBN 978-0-553-81820-8
This is a meticulously researched novel, injecting a horror element into the events surrounding Sir John Franklin's failed expedition to find the so-called North-West Passage in the ships Erebus and Terror, which departed England on 19th May 1845. Both ships were veterans of the icy waters of the Antarctic, and the two volcanoes on that continent were named after the ships but, though heavily refitted for their time in the Arctic, both ships were frozen into the pack ice near King William Island. In this book, in addition to the obvious dangers of constant sub-zero temperatures, dwindling supplies, scurvy and madness, Simmons has created a supernatural predator that lives on the ice. It appears to be a polar bear, but a freakishly big one, over four times the size of the normal animal. However, over time it becomes clear that this creature is anything but normal, seemingly able to appear and disappear at will, and possessed of a cunning intelligence. After the death of Franklin command of the expedition falls to Captain Francis Crozier, who is eventually forced to abandon the ships and attempt to get his men to safety by walking south. But he has to face mutiny and cannibalism, while the white nemesis continues to dog the men, depriving them of supplies while picking them off. Crozier's only hope of salvation probably rests with a young Esquimaux woman, named Lady Silence due to her having had her tongue ripped out as a child.
This richly detailed story appears somewhat daunting at 936 pages, but so brilliant a writer is Simmons that, in fact, it seems to zoom by (as you tell yourself, "I'm just going to read one more chapter... Well, maybe two.") until you find yourself at the end. Needless to say, the book covers a lot of ground, with many a 'flashback' to events leading up to the expedition and on to Franklin's death at the hands (paws?) of the beast, during the first half of the novel which opens after these events have already taken place. One also might suspect, given the amount of detail about the ships and life at sea at the time, that the book would drag (in the way that many people have trouble reading Moby Dick), but not a bit of it. Simmons is so subtle that the information never seems intrusive, nor slows the pace of the novel. This would be a great book to read in mid-Winter, wrapped up in warm blankets with a hot toddy to hand. I (and I know I'm not alone in this) am constantly in awe of Simmons' abilities, and I have no hesitation in saying that, as far as I'm concerned, he is one of the best writers to emerge from the late twentieth century (Song of Kali, his first novel, came out in 1985). I just hope that there is plenty more to come!
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