We chose this for our October 2019 book club. I just finished it.
It is a very long book.
Honestly, I would not have read this but for the book club. Nothing about it seemed all that appealing to me.
- “I need to read it before watching the miniseries”: nope.
- Scary ice monsters: nope.
- 900 pages: nope.
- A slow, cold descent into terror and death: NOPE.
- Dan Simmons: Honestly, neither here nor there.
- Old ships: OK MAYBE.
So I’m as surprised as anyone that I actually…really quite enjoyed this book. Around 25% I was still considering giving up. There was a lot of talk about various ships, and details of various characters’ histories in the British Navy. There were a lot of old dude ship captains and their interpersonal rivalries. It was fine, sure, fine, ok. But then all of a sudden a monster appeared! And it got pretty exciting!
The strongest thing about this book, for me, was what annoyed me early on: It is LONG. There is SO MUCH ICE. And over the course of the many hundreds of pages, you get so familiar with that ice. You get inside the heads of the men stuck there for days, months, years, becoming intimately familiar with the different moods of the ice, looking for open water, thinking you hear monsters–but maybe it’s just the ice breaking, creaking, howling. Knowing that with each passing day the likelihood of ever seeing anything that’s not ice is dwindling away. It feels appropriate for a book about being stuck on the ice for two or more years to be 900 pages long. 900 pages of being stuck in the ice. By about page 600 you start to really empathize with these poor dudes out there, no end in sight, rum all gone, rations getting smaller with each passing day, catastrophe after catastrophe. (I mean that sincerely–something about slogging through the hundred of pages does actually put you in a more appreciative frame of mind. This book at 300 pages would have a totally different emphasis and psychological effect.)
There’s ice, and then there’s the monster. I don’t want to say too much about the monster, except that I thought it was quite well done and I really liked the ending.
There’s ice, and there’s the monster, and then there are the those other creatures who look so small against the ice: humans. The crew, humanity in all its monstrous pettiness and glorious ambition. Humans who can be so noble, withstand so much, overcome, love, build, create…and humans who can be so cruel, bloodthirsty, conniving, wretched. It’s all here, laid bare on the ice. Sometimes literally.
The plot is a retelling of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were real ships (I didn’t know that! #themoreyouknow) that really went on this voyage. Obviously, it didn’t go well. The monster on the ice is fictional (OR IS IT?) but the rest is not, or at least, not necessarily. And the rest is arguably more horrific.