There’s a good book somewhere inside Dan Simmons’ The Abominable. Flashes of a deft, fast-paced thriller appear throughout the novel’s 600-plus pages, which only make the rest of it more of a slog than its page count suggests. Simmons’ works have always been on the lengthy side, but with The Abominable, he lets his need for historical accuracy obscure good storytelling, filling pages with information that perfectly sets the scene, but destroys any tension he’s created. Simmons’ previous historical fictions, The Terror and Drood, were filled with minutiae as well, but here his attention to detail proves a fatal flaw.
Beginning with an unnecessary framing device that stars Simmons himself, The Abominable charts the progress of a secret attempt to summit Mount Everest in the 1920s. When Jake Perry learns that Lord Percival Bromley, a rakish Brit, has been lost on Everest, he and his climbing partners persuade Bromley’s mother to fund a rescue effort. Although Bromley has certainly not survived, the three intend to use the search for his body as an excuse to summit the mountain (28 years before the first recorded successful attempt). Joined by Bromley’s female cousin Reggie and her personal doctor, the group treks far up the mountain, only to encounter unexpected, and possibly supernatural, threats.
Written from Jake’s perspective, The Abominable lays out exactly what it would take to summit Mount Everest in 1925, explaining the tools, routes, and climbing techniques. Simmons hammers home how foolhardy the expedition is, frequently reminding the reader about the bitter cold, freak avalanches, and that the human body begins to shut down at the mountain’s peak, unable to take in enough oxygen to live. Everest is scary enough without the added threats that Simmons introduces, but is also frustratingly underrepresented in the book. It’s as if Simmons doesn’t understand that the mountain itself is the most interesting part of his novel.
Although the main thrust of the story takes place on Everest, Simmons spends the first third of the book (more than 200 pages) dilly-dallying around Europe, looking for clues as to why Bromley was on the mountain in the first place. While this section ostensibly sets up the plot to come, it’s a significant drag, providing information that could have been easily given on the fly or once the expedition had begun. Even worse, he revisits the same informational tidbits, never trusting the reader to remember something he’s revealed a chapter before. Cut out all the repetition, and The Abominable would be a quicker, far less frustrating read.
Simmons does stick the landing, though. The Abominable’s last third is nicely paced, and keeps building tension as it reaches the conclusion. But after almost 500 pages of a slow-moving plot and repetitive prose, the ending is too little, too late. If anything, the book feels like a first or second draft: The structure of the story is there, but Simmons hasn’t been rigorous enough in editing his style to turn The Abominable into a polished work. That’s too bad, since a covert attempt to summit Everest is a fantastic idea for a book.