En route to the fabled Northwest Passage in the mid-19th century, the Franklin Expedition and its two ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror, were permanently lodged in the pack ice off King William's Land. As Dan Simmons imagines it in the gripping historical fiction The Terror, the conditions facing Captain Crozier, the highest-ranking survivor, are beyond dire: Two merciless winters and no summer thaw have strangled the ships to near-death; much of the low-bid supply of tinned foodstuffs has turned putrid; the shrinking rations and lack of fresh meat sources have caused an outbreak of scurvy; and the crew is turning mutinous. Oh, and incidentally, there's a giant supernatural beast in the ice that's decapitated scores of men and appears intent on killing them all. In a sense, that last hardship seems unnecessary, given that no one from the Franklin Expedition survived to tell about it. Yet beyond providing a few visceral jolts, the monster functions most potently as a metaphor for Mother Nature, and the fatal hubris of thinking she can be bested.
Sprawled out over an absorbing 760 pages, The Terror should be read under a warm blanket next to the fireplace, preferably with a running order of hot porridge. In scrupulous detail, Simmons captures the unholy miseries of life in the arctic freeze: breath that shatters into crystals, digits lost to frostbite, and slow-crawling scurvy that makes victims lose their teeth and bleed from every orifice. Motivated by a grim determination to live, Crozier makes some tough (and increasingly unpopular) decisions about if and when to abandon ship and search for another route home. His mission is complicated by their discovery of a mute Inuit woman whom some suspect is an "Esquimeaux witch," though others view her as their only hope for salvation.
Though it veers into the fantastical, including a magnificently frightening setpiece that pays homage to "The Masque Of The Red Death," The Terror continually registers its disdain for the arrogance of western civilization in foreign lands. Simmons paints expedition leader Sir John Franklin as a holy fool of George W. Bush-like proportions, an oblivious teetotaler who believes against all evidence that his unwieldy ships can carve out a path to glory. The book metes out one hard lesson after another, yet its palpable adversities occasionally give way to moments of real beauty and transcendence. It's hard to imagine a more perfectly judged arctic novel.