It’s been a weird few weeks. Ever since I moved back home from the Arctic at the start of the month, days have been blending together. I feel like I’ve had far too much to do and nothing at all at the same time. Like everything has changed, yet it’s all the same.
I’ve tried to keep up with my writing – I’ve been working on a few cool projects that I’m excited to share with all of you soon, as well editing my third book, and I just received feedback on a manuscript I’m querying a few days ago. The publisher wants me to consider changing a few things, and then they wanted to read it again!
I’m also trying to stay active and get some regular exercise, and on top of everything there’s the day job. Other than that, I feel like days just pass me by and I have nothing to do. At the same time, I have no time to do anything and I’m totally out of sync with my regular habits. It’s a weird feeling.
So I’m happy to say I’ve finally found time to read a book again – The Terror by Dan Simmons!
The Terror is a historical fiction and it’s a retelling of the fateful Franklin expedition which aimed to find the Northwest Passage aboard the two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. A terrifyingly dark and chilling story that made it go cold down my back and simultaneously madee me dream myself back to the Arctic where I lived up until a few weeks ago.
I haven’t read anything by Dan Simmons before, though he’s been on my list for a while (but I think I might have had him confused with Dan Wells? I could have sworn Dan Simmons was the guy who wrote ‘I’m Not A Serial Killer’ and thought that was how I heard of him. Anyway-) His language and the way he writes is captivating and detailed, and the story is incredibly well researched. I spent two years in the Arctic and though I never spent any length of time on a ship stuck out in the ice – (though I was stuck on a ship in a storm once!) – much of this brought me straight back there. From he freezing cold that never seems to relent, to the pressing but somehow soothing darkness, and not at least all the noises that can be heard across the ice.
And the story is terrifyingly good. Simmons paints an excellent picture of the terror that creeps into ones soul once you realize you’re stuck. To begin with, the hardened sailors tough it out – after all, they’re onboard two of the most impressive feats of naval engineering of their time, stocked to the rim with supplies that should last them for years. But once the isolation sets in, and the loneliness of knowing you won’t see anyone but a little more than a hundred seamen for years, you start to wonder what will be the end of you. The cold? A white bear, stalking you while you hunt for food? Disease? Maybe the eventual lack of food? The mate in the cot beside you, driven mad by the darkness? Or that monster out there on the ice.
Because this isn’t entirely historical in nature. There is also an element of horror here, and it’s likely what’s going to divide readers. There’s something else out there, with the seamen. Something the native Inuits have a name for that the English don’t. A creature, perhaps. A white shadow. A monster.
I enjoyed the book, a lot. As with many things I read, I found it to be a bit on the long side. There were passages designed to develop our key characters, chapters that provided backstory and details that though appeared relevant to understand how characters had come into the positions they were in, seemed to me to be entirely out of place. Suddenly we were on the other side of the world, reading a romance subplot that only served to take away from the cold and isolated world we were supposed to be stuck in, in my opinion. (A bit like this paragraph right here…)
It was also slightly confusing with the amount of names, titles, coordinates, dates, and place names that I was supposed to keep track of. Maybe it had been easier if I wasn’t listening to an audiobook, but by the end I wasn’t even trying to pay attention to where things were in relation to each other.
At last, I want to mention the title, because I think it’s a genius one. At first, I assumed it was referring to the name of the ship. I studied archaeology in England years ago and could write a small paper on the meaning and change in practice of naming ships. It can be divided into periods, where the names of naval vessels directly reflect the position or status of the crown. There were times when ships would be named after people, like Mary Rose, and then later you’d see names like HMS Victory and HMS Sovereign, reflecting a simple, but certain message. Then later on, you have the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, with entirely darker names. It’s actually a quite fascinating subject to study.
The simple definition of ‘Terror’ is, “extreme fear,” but ‘Erebus’ I actually had to look up. It comes from the Ancient Greek Érebos and means, “deep darkness,” or “shadow.” Both were originally bomb vessels, later converted for polar voyages, and I think the names of both speak volumes about the society that built them. To think they would both end up getting stuck in the dark ice is… poetic.
But back to the title, because it’s also poetic. It could be the name of the one ship. It could reflect the actual terror of the men when they realized they were stuck and the horror the lived through trying to get out of there. It could refer to the cold and dark environment they found themselves in. The hopelessness. The fear they must have felt. Or the dark creature they were there with. I like it – and it made me think.
If you like historical fantasy with a twist of horror – or if you have a particular affinity for the Arctic, like myself, or would just like to know more about what life near the poles is like, I think you’ll enjoy this book. It’s horrifyingly detailed and really very good. And of course there’s the excellent TV show that you can watch when you’re done!
I look forward to cracking on with another book – these days it seems most likely that I’ll only be able to listen to an audiobook when I drive around for work, but I’ll take whatever I can get. And then I’ll look forward to the summer when I can sit out on my balcony with a paperback in my hands. What about you, what have you been reading lately? Anything you’d recommend?