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And I did. It had taken over my life. I thought about it whenever I wasn’t reading it. Its length (nearly 800 pages) and my generally slow reading pace made sure it would take me a while, but two weeks for such a long book is pretty good for me. And whenever I was in the same room with it and not otherwise occupied, I had to read it.

“It,” of course, is Dan Simmons’ marvelous new novel, The Terror. (Text note: since “Terror” in the title refers to a ship, I know that technically it’s supposed to be italicized as The Terror. But I’m too lazy to be a stickler today.) Most of us have probably run across a little Dan Simmons sometime in our careers. He writes fine novels across a variety of genres (fantasy, sci-fi, horror, hardboiled mysteries), and I’ve long been a fan of his horror novels. I thought Summer of Night, for instance, was much better than its thematic relative, Stephen King’s obnoxiously overstuffed It.

So when my Hachette rep Marty Conroy sold me a new novel by Simmons which was about the men of a lost Arctic expedition from the late 1840s stuck in the ice and stalked by a monstrous predator, I was more than a little interested. The marketing blurbs trumpeted, “Patrick O’Brian meets Stephen King!” Okay, I’m not so much the O’Brian fan, but large horrifying creatures eating people has been a favorite book and movie theme of mine for many, many years. I anxiously awaited the galley.
When it came, my initial excitement was quickly smothered by dread, 760 pages? This sucker is going to take me weeks! But Marty had told me a picky colleague of his had read and loved it, so I decided to put it next on the pile.

Well, it did take weeks. Two weeks, to be exact. And they were two weeks very well spent. As I said, the novel is riveting. I never once, in all its 760 pages, thought, “Okay, this is slowing up, move it ahead!” It does not let up for a minute. The situation at the start of the novel is that the Franklin expedition (which actually did get lost in the Arctic in 1847), consisting of two ships (Erebus and Terror), has, in seeking the Northwest Passage, gotten stuck during the winter far north of the Arctic Circle. They have already spent one winter in their position, and in 1847, there isn’t enough of a summer to get the ships free. (The Erebus is already smashed beyond repair, though the crew use it for shelter.) As they face down the winter of 1847, which of course is dark 24/7 and very very cold, their captain Sir John Franklin is dead and supplies are dwindling. They may or may not be able to make it to the summer, and if the summer’s too cold, they’ll still be stuck. They’re thousands of miles from any chance of rescue. And did I mention the fact that men keep disappearing from the ships and coming back in pieces, if at all?

Yes, friends, the situation is bad enough, but the ships’ crews have company on the ice. Very bad company indeed. As if putrefying rations, treachery, near mutiny, a mysterious tongueless Esquimaux woman, dire cold, and the constant threat of scurvy aren’t enough.

And, oh, man, does Simmons do right by his material. His writing has never been better. The action scenes never drag the way they often do in long novels. The characters are real, flawed, living, breathing creations, especially the incompetent Sir John Franklin, the heroic Captain Francis Crozier, the equally heroic Doctor Goodsir. I feel that I have lived this novel with its characters, and I’ve taken about all the freezing weather and constant fear of mutiny I can. Seal blubber even sounds appetizing to me now. But you can bet I’ll be drinking my orange juice to ward off scurvy. You don’t want to die of that, believe me.
If this sounds like something you’d like, do NOT miss the Rep Around Galley Breakfast, on Sunday starting at 7.30 am. Marty Conroy tells me he will have a limited number of galleys there. No, it doesn’t come out until after Christmas, but people have to spend their gift cards on something, don’t they?