Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Historical thriller on Everest climbs to spellbinding greatness

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When we say something is a "complete fiction" we usually mean that it is a lie, beginning to end.

And, of course, The Abominable, American author Dan Simmons' historical thriller about five daring friends climbing Mount Everest in 1925, one year after British climber George Mallory famously fell to his death there, is a fiction in the usual sense of the word.

But it also is "complete" in a different meaning -- it is satisfying in every way imaginable.

There are no loose ends, which is something in a story as fantastic as this tale of mountaineers pursued by nascent Nazis and abominable snowmen across Tibet and up Everest.

Every conceivable objection to the string of extraordinary coincidences, thrills, setbacks, tragedies and triumphs is plausibly covered off, from finding Mallory's body 75 years before its actual discovery, to explaining how it is that not a word of this history-changing feat had leaked out -- until now.

Oh, and along the way we discover how, among other things, the expedition involved a young Winston Churchill and prevented Hitler from invading Britain 20 years later during the Second World War.

The Abominable takes readers to the coldest, bleakest, most hostile and yet most breathtakingly beautiful place that man to then had been -- Mount Everest, the uncharted Top of the World -- a time when synthetic was just a word and climbing boots were hobnailed.

As with The Terror, Simmons' 2007 imagining of the cruel and horrifying fate of the Franklin expedition, The Abominable is an invention of such storytelling genius that you cannot put it down once the first ice pick is planted -- on Page 1 at the top of the Matterhorn.

To best appreciate how sublimely clever Simmons has been in weaving historical fact with fiction, it would be worthwhile to first read Wade Davis' Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, a non-fiction account of the lives and times that Simmons mines in this his 28th novel.

But it's not necessary to do so. Mallory comes to life, even in death, and we are introduced to many of his real-life colleagues as the heroes of The Abominable undertake their impossible journey to 29,029 feet.

The narrator is American climber Jacob William Perry. Simmons explains in an "introduction" that he met "Jake" in 1991 at a retirement home in Colorado while doing cold-weather research for The Terror. Jake eventually sends Simmons a "testament," which Simmons publishes as The Abominable.

The adventure begins with Jake, French mountain guide Jean Claude Clairoux (J.C.), and English poet and First World War hero Richard Davis Deacon (the Deacon) climbing in the Alps. The Deacon reveals that he has been asked by stupendously rich Lady Queensbury to go to Everest and recover the body of her son, who disappeared on the mountain a year earlier in the company of a purported low-life rake and bounder while seemingly in pursuit of Mallory's ill-fated expedition.

Whatever was the young lord doing following Mallory up Everest? What indeed? Was it worth dying for on a mountain where sunstroke and frostbite threaten simultaneously, where a slip means certain death by hideous smashing dismemberment, where Buddhists warn of angry yeti stalking the icefields and where there is nowhere to run from murderous fascist thugs but straight up beyond the clouds?

The answers to these questions -- and the riddle of what could be more abominable than a snowman -- are delivered by Simmons in 672 spellbinding pages.

Gerald Flood is the Free Press Comment editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 A1

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