Mount Everest is one of the most imposing things/locales on Planet Earth, it is after all, the largest mountain on the globe. Dan Simmons takes his expert authorial voice to Everest and weaves a death-defying tale about mountain climbers in 1925 on a mission to recover a lost climber at a time when no climber had yet ascended its highest peaks. In The Abominable, Simmons blends history and intrigue into a fictitious telling with hints of folk tales.
Simmons uses a clever framing device in the novel, inserting himself into the narrative. The first chapter, which at first seems like a typical author’s introduction, turns out to be a recounting of a fictitious meeting between Simmons and the protagonist of the main novel, Jacob Perry, a veteran mountain climber who once attempted to climb Mount Everest. The character Dan Simmons secures a meeting with Perry to initially discuss Perry’s experience in an expedition in Antarctica for a novel he plans on writing. In what is just the first of many a misdirection in the novel, Perry’s experience on Mount Everest turns out to be the story Simmons reveals rather than anything involving an Antarctic expedition.
After this brief introduction, the voice switches from Simmons to Perry as we read Perry’s journals covering the time he trained and prepared in 1925 with French climber Jean-Claude Clairoux and the expedition’s most experienced climber, “The Deacon”—Richard Davis Deacon, prior to climbing the British Hill. Simmons expends great effort in the long preamble setting the characters and the overall situation. An old friend of the Deacon’s—Percival Bromley—has gone missing on Everest under circumstances that could be described as cloudy. Lady Bromley, Pierce’s mother, is willing to fund an expedition to find her son whether or not the young man is alive.
Much of this lengthy preamble entails treks across Europe as the trio attempt to learn more about the missing Lord Bromley, past expeditions on Everest, and training exercises along steep mountains. The most intriguing lead they come across is a man, Sigl, associated with a charismatic German leader, who at the time of the novel, is in prison. Of course, this leader is Adolf Hitler. The other character who provides to be a misdirection is Percival’s cousin Reggie, who, as part of the deal with Lady Bromley, will be accompanying Perry’s party. Reggie is a woman, which surprises the three men a great deal. The novel’s middle third comes to a conclusion when the mountaineering party arrive at Everest. The final third, itself titled “The Abominable,” finally reveals the novel’s Macguffin.
The details and minutiae of mountaineering comprises a great deal of the narrative, to the point where I felt it bogged down what was I thought was supposed to be a novel with the feel of a thriller. The scenes involving Perry’s party first meeting Sigl in a German bar were some of the strongest and most tense in the novel. Here, the character development Simmons put into this novel, coupled with a historically familiar setting gave The Abominable a feel of authenticity.
As I consider the novel at greater length, The Abominable could very plausibly have the words “of misdirection” added to its subtitle of “A Novel.” Where the misdirection worked was the character of Percival Bromley. Much was said about him early in the novel that, like a great deal about The Abominable, turned out to be smoke and mirrors. Where the misdirection was faulty is the character of Reggie. The dust jacket and promo material reveals “the missing boy’s female cousin” which severely undermines what could have been a much more effective plot point of the novel. (This at least, seems the fault of the publisher rather than Simmons, as the UK edition doesn’t reveal Reggie’s gender.) Also, while The Abominable is not explicitly marketed as a novel with supernatural elements, the fact that the writer has a reputation for such novels, coupled with the legends of a Yeti making Mount Everest its residence could easily lead readers to make the logical assumption that the novel is horror with elements of the fantastic.
Where the novel does work is in Simmons ability to convey a feel of authenticity to those climbing the mountain and our world in a state of flux between two World Wars. I thought the structure Simmons employed to tell the tale was very effective. Ultimately, The Abominable is a frustrating novel for its multiple misdirections and contradictions, and the dense nature of what is ultimately a thriller novel undermines much of the potential tension inherit in such a novel.
The Abominable is available now from Little, Brown and Company.
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, curates the Orphan Black rewatch here at Tor.com and contributes to SF Signal. If you want to read random thoughts about books, his dog, beer, RV and hockey, you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford or his blog.