An intriguing mash-up of a horror novel and historical fiction. Simmons starts with a real-life 19th century nautical expedition that disappeared in the arctic while searching for a northwest passage, and whose members must have perished from the elements, disease, and starvation, and adds a monster. Simmons is a master of detail and atmosphere: his writing captures the many particular realities of life on an 1840s British naval vessel, the grueling, claustrophobic experience of being stranded in arctic cold and darkness, and the gradual disintegration of human order as circumstances grow more desperate.
In a way, the monster plot is superfluous to the story, which is intense enough without it. As it is, the deliciously grim descriptions of hauling a sledge across a frozen waste or trying to sleep in fifty below zero weather while sick with scurvy, running out of food, and hundreds of miles from anywhere will make you feel grateful for being at home in a warm bed. But Simmons uses his creature as an effective background presence in the story, symbolic, in the way fictional monsters usually are, of the folly and weakness of man in the face of the wild.
The book moves at a slow pace, which had me occasionally skimming pages to the more exciting parts. And some character vantage points seemed to be there just for a sense of atmosphere, which made me wonder if I would have missed that much had I gone with the abridged audio version instead of the printed edition. Still, the oppressive grip of the story pulled me through to the end.