Books about exploration often inspire our armchair fascination no matter what the destination, but the real stories emerge in the character of the intrepid explorers. In the hands of a lesser writer than the Hugo Award-winning Dan Simmons, The Terror might well have dissolved into a series of frigid days and three-dog nights. But Simmons is too good a writer to ignore the real gold in his story its beleaguered cast.

Told from multiple points of view that include a doctor's journal, the novel blurs the line between fact and fiction in the story of the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Arctic Expedition and the 129 men aboard its two ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. Their objective was to chart the Northwest Passage, but when ice imprisons the ships and the men for two years, goals change drastically and the expedition reverts to mere survival.

Simmons provides us with an amazing scale of the human spirit courage, tenacity, cowardice, deceit against conditions that are grim at best, hopeless at worst. And then, as if these stranded men don't have enough to reckon with, a supernatural monster begins to stalk them with a methodical villainy. Never has the sanctuary of our reading chairs given us such a feeling of safety, for this is truly a frightening novel. Capt. Francis Crozier emerges as our flawed hero, but there is no dearth of fascinating characters, from murdering mutineers to a mystical Eskimo woman called Lady Silence because her tongue has been removed.

Simmons' writing is unflinchingly superb, and while he has a loyal following from his previous works (most recently the sci-fi novels Olympos and Ilium), The Terror should bring him an even wider audience. Just make sure there's nothing lurking behind your favorite reading chair when you embark.

Michael Lee is the author of Paradise Dance and will publish a collection of essays, In an Elevator with Brigitte Bardot (Wordcraft), in March.

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