I didn't know much about Dan Simmons going into this one -- his Locus and Hugo award winning piles of genre fiction were sort of on my radar but I hadn't touched any of them. The takeaway from The Terror is that this dude isn't messing around. The Terror is almost absurd in its scale and attention to detail, and pretty bold in its unrelenting bleakness.
Here's the deal: Terror and Erebus are the two vessels of the doomed Franklin Expedition, an 1800s attempt to force the Northwest Passage famous for disappearing with all hands presumed dead. In the real world, Sir John Franklin led all of the men under his command on a futile trip into the Arctic until their ships got stuck in the ice for over a year and they all starved to death.
The Terror is historical fiction that remains faithful to its depressing premise -- plus they're under attack by a yeti. The elements of the fantastic take a backseat to follow the agonizingly slow, inevitable elimination of the crew by hunger, scurvy, and one another. Simmons makes a protagonist out of the expedition's second-in-command, the crass, hyper-competent Francis Crozier (falling in with the historical view that Franklin, traditionally lionized, was an arrogant, overweight waste of time). The monster is, in the grand scheme of things, a sub-plot; which doesn't prevent it from being an evocative, terrifying presence in the novel. The monster is the motive force of the plot, and its ability to introduce crippling tension to the already unrelenting bleakness of the novel is amplified by the sparsity of its appearances.
The real power of The Terror is Simmons's hand at expanding the vaguest historical sketches of the ill-fated crew of the Franklin Expedition -- a cast of dozens -- into full-figured characters, all of whom are absolutely doomed. The Terror is, if anything, an wonderful ordeal to read. The Terror is worth a read on the audacity of its premise alone; it's a thousand pages in which the reader knows every last character has an expiration date, and in which pretty much everything goes from bad to worse to yet worse still, recalling Melville in its scale and Cormac McCarthy in its complete dedication to darkness. So -- yeah. Pretty great.