While Simmons's Terror
is finely researched and has a brilliant premise, I'm afraid the book fails as a story due to a preoccupation with detail and repetition. In fact, I wouldn't put the blame solely on Simmons himself. I hold the editor responsible for not catching the faults of the story in the drafting phase. In fact, I'm so sure that the editor killed this book that I'll name him so he can be responsible: Reagan Arthur.
The story's arc is intriguing, a group of arctic explorers under Sir John Franklin disappears in search of the Northwest Passage in the 1850s (all of which is true). Simmons picks up the story from there and brilliantly fills in the gory details of the attempt by the expedition to survive for years in the unforgiving climate around the North Pole. Adding to the tension and the constant anxiety created by survival stories is the fact that the crew is being stalked by a monster, an abomination of evolution or an Inuit god cast out centuries ago. There's enough mystery and suspense to keep one reading through the very bad narration at times.
Two major faults stick with me through all of the nearly 800 pages of this tale. 1) Simmons frequently goes back and forth between present and past tense for no apparent reason. Maybe this started off as an attempt to keep things tense or to distinguish between the present and flashbacks, but the structure soon breaks down and often breaks down within paragraphs or on the same page. In fact, events near the end of the book, which one would consider the present are narrated with past tense. This sounds like something petty, I know. But, as a friend pointed out to me after putting the book down after the first few pages, it is extremely distracting. 2) Simmons is repetitive and detailed to the point of nausea. To the point that you want to start skipping pages. He feels a constant need to remind the reader of who is still left alive, who was on watch on which night, who was on a sledging expedition. And not just who was there, but their rank, the details of their life, the color of their hair, how many teeth they still had, which had scurvy, which had advanced
scurvy or whatever. He also feels a need to remind the reader every few pages what happened to so and so so far. He shows a boy-like obsession with nautical detail to the point that the story becomes confusing to someone with little to no knowledge of sailing (and I'm not the type of reader to go look up every little thing that I don't know). I'll quote for you one passage that I found toward the end of the book (that can surely be seen throughout the entirety) to illustrate the bad editing:
"Puhtoorak's best description of the precise location had been that the three-stick house 'was frozen in the ice near an island about five miles due west' of a certain point and that he and his hunting party ' then had to walk about three miles north across smooth ice to reach the ship after crossing several islands on their walk from the point. They could see the ship from a cliff at the north end of the large island.'
Of course, Puhtoorak had not used the term 'miles' nor 'ship' nor even 'point.' What the old man had said was that the three-stick kabloona
house with an umiak's
hull was a certain number of hours' walk west of tikerqat
, which means 'Two Fingers,' which the Real People called two narrow points along this stretch of the Utjulik coastline, and then somewhere close to the north end of a large island there."
Seriously, if I wasn't ten pages from the end I'd have thrown the book across the room and moved on to something else. Pick one way or the other to describe it. Any intelligent reader can assume that of course the Inuit didn't say
miles! And this is only one example! The book is filled with nonsense clutter like this that interrupts the flow of the story and frustrates the reader.
Mr. Simmons shows some real story-telling talent and imagination, and this novel would have garnered at least four stars from me if his editors had cut about 200 pages of fat from the book. At 500 pages, the book would have been a more taut and tense thriller, yet still provided the necessary pages for the description of a crew wasting away to starvation, scurvy and an unrelenting predator. Sigh. I felt like I wasted entirely too much of my life on this story....