In 1845, Sir John Franklin led an expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Canadian Arctic. HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were never heard from again. Later rescuers found some notes in a cairn, indicating that the ships had been trapped for a year and a half in the ice, and the crews had finally abandoned ship, making for the south.
Dan Simmons builds a tale of horror from all the known historical facts: the frigid dangers of an Arctic winter, when the sun doesn’t rise for months; the ice constantly grinding the trapped ships; the terrible hardships of man-hauling sleds across the ice packs; the hunger as the food runs out early as many of the cans were improperly sealed; and the horrors of scurvy as they begin starving. The final horror is a beast from Inuit legend, which terrorizes them for months, picking them off one by one.
The book is told from the viewpoints of multiple characters on the two ships, most notably that of Francis Crozier, the captain of the Terror, a hard-drinking, socially inferior Irish commoner, who is far more capable than the inept Sir John. Despite the horrors, these men refuse to simply give up. They go on, sustaining hope, under the most awful conditions.
Recommended, though it would have been a better book were it shorter.