Tuesday, October 22, 2013

[Book Review] Dan Simmons' 'The Abominable' Is One Long, Slow Climb

There's a fair amount of shivery anticipation awaiting the release of Dan Simmons' The Abominable (October 22; ), particularly from the cult following that surrounds 2007's The Terror--both novels deliver the harsh historical facts of a true adventure story, and each has been shaded with streaks of speculative horror. In The Terror Simmons postulated that much of John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition of 1845 was massacred by an Eskimo demon. The heady mix of history and horror emerged as one of the best novels of the young century, and The Terror is currently in series development at AMC. With The Abominable, Simmons moves the action to 1925 and a Mount Everest expedition to recover the bodies from a failed summit attempt, despite the locals' reports of possible yeti attacks. Sounds pretty damn sweet. But despite good intentions and an action-packed third act, The Abominable simply can't match the The Terror's imaginative plotting and riveting sense of high danger.

In the prologue, Simmons informs the reader that the upcoming novel has been transcribed from the hand-written journals of one Jacob Perry, an explorer and mountain climber who bequeathed them to Simmons after his death in 1992. As a cocksure 23-year-old with a fair amount of skills, Perry was desperate to make a summit attempt on Mount Everest. When George Mallory's famous expedition goes missing in 1924, a wealthy benefactor pays Perry and his buds to go search for the bodies. Armed with some newfangled ice axes and a shitload of oxygen tanks, the group decides to kill two birds with one stone: after they recover the bodies, they'll be free to make a summit attempt of their own.

While The Abominable pays increasing dividends, the early chapters are as dry as balls, with the entire first half of this bulky 600-pager devoted almost entirely to climb preparations. With multi-page descriptions of climbing practice sessions and luxurious British estates, Simmons takes his sweet time getting down to business. Fortunately, Simmons a good enough writer to keep it mostly interesting--it's like listening to a long-winded but frequently engaging college professor--but some chapters are certainly a test of patience.

Things improve considerabley once the action moves to Everest, but the relentless tease of possible yeti attacks proves progressively frustrating. Lacking the monster massacre scares of The Terror, The Abominable replaces the sense of creeping dread with a hastily resolved murder-mystery. Yes, Simmons wraps up his meandering travelogue with an action-packed finale (when all else fails: Nazis), but it's a somewhat tepid payoff for such an arduous journey. Pour an extra shot in that coffee, put on your dad's reading glasses, and get comfortable. It's going to be a long, cold night.
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