BOOK REVIEW: The Abominable by Dan Simmons
REVIEW SUMMARY: Based on the title and Simmons other works (The Terror), I was looking for the Yeti; I was looking for lots of Yetis! What I found was an excellent alternate history between the Great War and World War II on the slopes of Everest, slow to rev, but a fast and furious ending.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Three world-class climbers, Jake (a young American), Jean Claude (a French Chamoix guide) and the Deacon (a British veteran of the Great War) volunteer for a trip to find the body or whereabouts of Lord Percival Bromley, who either died climbing the mountain or met with an “Abominable” fate.
PROS: Set in a time when Everest has yet to be summited, that complicated point in history between World War I and World War II; in-depth descriptions of climbing in the cold; like The Terror, vivid descriptions about what it feels like to be very cold; have I mentioned the cold?
CONS: NEED MORE YETI! A few side trips to climb mountains for character-building; not sure the “I got this manuscript from a guy I met named Jake” handed-off memoir strategy is required.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s Dan Simmons. Read it.
I should have known that this book was not about Yetis! Mr. Simmons rarely writes about the same topic twice (he covered a Yeti-like monster in The Terror), rarely even in the same genre…he makes his own. But I fell for it; fell for the title, fell for the inclusion of the writing of The Terror in the forward, and was quite excited when Yetis finally get mentioned in the book (pg. 159).
“How large were the prints in the snow?” I asked.
“A paw print of a human-like foot fourteen to sixteen inches long?” said Finch, turning it into a question as he turned toward the Deacon.
“The porters knew exactly what the tracks were and who or what had made them,” said Finch in his soft German accent. “They were made by Metohkangmi…a yeti.”
“By whom?” I said, my cup of coffee still frozen in space as if I could neither drink from it nor set it back on it saucer. “By what?” said Jean-Claude, almost in unison.
“Yeti,” repeated Finch. “Not one of the many demons that the locals believe live in or on the mountain, but a real, living, breathing, blood-eating man-thing…a creature-monster, eight feet tall or larger. Huge feet. A gorilla-like or manlike monster that can survive at altitudes of twenty-two thousand feet and above near Everest.”
But, of course, it is not about Yetis. It is about something that Simmons does as well, if not better than, any other author: taking past historical events and historical figures (as he does in Drood, The Terror, Black Hills, his upcoming The Fifth Heart featuring Henry James and Sherlock Holmes) and building an alternate history around those people and events that is real enough to believe. For example, the “Finch” in the above except is George Ingle Finch who was on the second British expedition to Everest in 1922.
The Abominable revolves around British attempts to summit Mt. Everest, at a time when layers of wool were the recommended dress for not freezing to death, climbing ropes tended to break, and tensions from The Great War colored most everyone’s thinking and emotions — except for Americans like Jake Perry, the protagonist who has advanced-enough climbing skills to befriend two excellent climbers, Jean Claude and the Deacon. Perry’s naiveté and American view of the world is the lens through which events unfold.
While climbing/training on the Matterhorn, the three hear of the deaths of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine as they tried to make the Everest Summit. This was June, 1924. They also find out about the deaths of Deacon’s friend, Lord Percival Bromley, who was for unknown reasons climbing high on Everest with only an Austrian, Kurt Meyer. Deacon devises a plan, financed by Lord Bromley’s mother, to go to Everest and find out what really happened to Lord Bromley and possibly summit Everest with his three-man Alpine team.
The “witness” who says he saw Lord Percival and Kurt Meyer fall is a German climber named Bruno Sigl. Deacon, who served in the British Army fighting against the Germans in the Great War, and Jake Perry travel to German to query Herr Sigl, providing Perry (and thus the reader) a view into the world that is coming.
Sigl only grunts at that. Then he looks at me. “What are you staring at, young man?”
“Your red flags on that wall in that roped-off corner,” I admit, pointing behind Sigl. “And the symbol in the white circle on the red flags.”
Sigl stares at me and his blue eyes are as cold as ice. “Do you know what that symbol is, Herr Jacob Perry form America?”
“Yes,” I say. I’d studied lots of Sanskrit and the Indus Valley cultures at Harvard. “It’s the symbol from India, Tibet and some other Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cultures meaning ‘good luck’ or sometimes ‘harmony.’ The Sanskrit word for it, I believe is svastika. I’m told that one finds it everywhere on old temples in India.”
Sigl is glaring at me now, as if I might be making fun of him or of something sacred to him. The Deacon lights his pipe and looks at me but says nothing.
“In today’s Deutschland,” Sigl says at last, barely moving his thin lips, “it is the swastika.” He spells it out for me using English-sounding letters. “It is the glorious symbol of the NSDAP – Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. It and the man in those photographs will be the salvation of Germany.”
The “bar” where Deacon and Perry are querying the Germans turns out to be the one where the Beer Hall Putsch took place; Simmons again mixing in historical fact with his characters.
There are descriptions of so many locations getting to Everest and then beginning the climb that several times I had to pull out a map (and wished there was one included in the novel). There is much climbing, talk of climbing ropes, down jackets, oxygen and other equipment. Simmons broaches other cultural norms at the time, not just the attitudes of French and British towards the Germans (and vice versa) but stereotypes of women and, to some extent, Indians (how Brits view those from the “colony” of India).
Though they are accurately described, some of the practice climbs appear to be detours in the plot. Yet Simmons pulls it all together in the end, revealing why those detours were taken. To describe much more would spoil what is abominable about The Abominable. Simmons provides an alternate history around not only the Everest climb but other important historical events of the time.
Is it an alternate history? Perhaps that seed of doubt is why Simmons chose to start the book with a first person “how I Dan Simmons got this memoir from old Jacob Perry while researching The Terror.” My initial impression was that that plot device was unnecessary, and, in fact, was beneath a writer of Simmons’ skill. But as I write this review and research George Finch, Mallory and the others, I wonder. Maybe the events of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror forging the Northwest Passage related in The Terror were the real history…maybe Drood was a real person. That is why I continue reading Simmons: his alternate histories are certainly as entertaining as true events, if not more so.
Filed under: Book Review
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!