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7th December
2008
written by Tony
2007

2007

I’ll admit it. This was one of those books. Much like one of those albums, back in the days when I still bought CDs, the cover was just too visually appealing to pass by. This is a risky business, I’ll admit (but it is also the bread and butter of my fellow designers), but sometimes I get that feeling that tells me, deep inside, that the designer who made the cover of this book was really in touch with the content, and subsequently my purchase will not be in vain. I’d give my success rate with these types of purchases slightly better odds than chance. Not a lot, mind you, but probably seven times out of ten I get at least a little lucky. I only realized after I had started the book that I have read several books by Dan Simmons already. His excellent (as I remember it) Hyperion series captivated me for a time when I was in high school. The surprising genre shift does not seem to have diminished his story telling aplomb. Overall, the writing is excellent, but I did find certain areas to be a bit verbose at times, though not egregiously so. The book is a massive 760 some odd pages of closely set type but Simmons’s occasional over-descriptiveness is certainly not to blame for this, as the book covers almost three years of time. Despite the weight of the tome I generally found it easy to read and the pages turned quickly thanks to frequent action and derring-do. The story is an engaging one, set in the arctic wasteland of the North Pole and is told from the perspective of various crewmembers of the ships Erebus and Terror. The expedition in focus is that of Sir John Franklin and his quest to find the Northwest Passage (one of many at the time) and covers three years, beginning in 1845. An interesting aside is that this story is based on factual accounts of the actual expedition of Franklin and his men, though most of the detail work is Simmons’s own speculation and fictitious lore gleaned from other sources. As the book opens we learn that the expedition is under attack from an unknown creature native to the frozen waste, a tundra of which the English interlopers are totally in thrall. It is clear that the explorers face two battles, one fought against the ice and one fought against the creature of the ice, and the attrition is often told in grim detail. Simmons has certainly brought a historian’s eye to this piece, and the light in which he paints the crude survival techniques of the time is often captivating. More than once I found myself in awe of how unfortunate the circumstances of the time were, mostly due to foolishness and stubborn pride. While the sailors hope for salvation in the form of food from the Inuits that inhabit the land, they (and those who came before them) are blithely unaware of the means by which the natives manage to be so successful in such a harsh land. In fact, they have a refugee among them for the entire duration of the story and fail to ever take note of how she survives, moving instead to the conclusion that she is a witch. I hesitate to give much more of the plot away, as it is well worth the read to find out how the many-layered story unfolds. Simmons has managed to create a host of living, breathing characters through clever use of introspective inner monologues, flashbacks and perception through the eyes of others. Since the narrative voice of the novel shifts almost every chapter, the reader is presented with a many faceted view of the characters and surroundings. Some chapters are journal entries, some are monologues, some are simply third person and are almost detached from the character in focus of the chapter. All in all, the book was engaging and moved at a good pace. I’m not intimidated by a thick novel (having recently read and enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel – I eschew Pynchon for reasons other than sheer page volume) so I didn’t let the page count dissuade me. I encourage anyone interested in this book to keep an open mind and avoid page count fright. If anything about it interests you, the book will certainly be captivating enough to keep the pages turning to the very end. 4 out of 5

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