Series Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy

AXbyJV

Earlier this year I reviewed Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, the first book in The Southern Reach Trilogy. Personally, I loved it, and since then I have seen the movie, which is also worth a watch. The first book is an atmospheric, environmental-horror, stream of consciousness ride. I’m sure that many people read the first book and wondered how the rest of the series played out, or maybe you haven’t started the first book yet and wonder if you’d like to dive into this series. So, this week I will do a little something different and discuss the series as a whole. I hope to answer two main questions to help those on the fence about starting or continuing this series.

Are the next two books worth it? Is the series good or satisfying overall? Yes and yes, but the books are certainly not for everyone. If you like hard sci-fi with precise science and properly explained conclusions, beware. If you like atmospheric novels, unexplained mysteries, bread crumb hints, drawing your own conclusions, and have an abstract appreciation for nature and science, the book might be perfect for you. I will also warn that all three books in the series are very different.

Book 1, Annihilation, is focused on one character and has a thriller-like claustrophobia to it. It has a rather open ending, but it could be happily read as a standalone novel. However, if you are still curious about Area X, the sequel, Authority, does yield a few answers. Again, the focus is on one main character (different from Annihilation‘s protagonist), but instead of taking place in Area X, most of the novel unfolds at The Southern Reach, the laboratory that is studying Area X. There are a lot of “behind the scenes” discoveries about Area X in Authority, but by the end, there are more new questions raised than answers given. As someone who really enjoyed being in Area X, I had a hard time getting through Authority as it felt a bit dull in comparison to Annihilation. Although, oddly, Authority has some humorous moments in an otherwise serious series.

Book 3, Acceptance, rounds out the series well. Multiple characters are followed in the last novel, and we see some old faces from previous books. There are many flashback chapters, but they do a good job of answering how Area X became what it is today, even if it does not explain why. That really sums up the third book: the why doesn’t matter and the how barely does. As I said, don’t expect to have the ending tied up nicely with a bow on top, but the author gives just enough clues throughout the series for careful readers to cobble together an opinion. After finishing the series I had a lot of fun browsing the web for theories concerning the series and its ending. If that doesn’t sound fun to you, again, the series might not be your cup of tea, and that’s completely fine!

As for the writing and characterization, I thought both were strong. Some of the descriptions of Area X are beautiful and yet horror-inducing. The scenes in the lab are oppressive, unsettling, and bleak. Vandermeer’s writing deftly conveys the tone and atmosphere of the novel. I also enjoyed how he got into each character’s head. Their actions make sense and feel realistic. Even when I questioned a character’s decision, it would later be revealed why they did something, and then it would all make sense. At this point I’m just singing praises for the series, but I genuinely think at least the first book is worth a read just for the experience.

I rated Annihilation 4/5 stars, Authority 3/5, and Acceptance 4/5. As a whole, I rated the series 4/5. It was a fun, unique, and thought-provoking series. I enjoyed the overall plot and all of the little details along the way. The scope of the series impressed me, and Jeff Vandermeer is definitely a new favorite author.

Borne

BbyJV

Do you ever find a new author, read and like a book or two they wrote, then all of the sudden realize that you found a new favorite author? Well, that’s what is going on with me. I’ve read and reviewed two other books from Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook and Annihilation. I really liked them both, and he might be the author to finally get me into the sci-fi genre. But enough about me. Onward to the review!

Rachel survives by scavenging in her ruined, half-abandoned city. The whys and hows of the city’s destruction is a bit of a mystery, but the city’s fate is closely tied to The Company’s. The Company’s experiments and disregard for humanity as well as the natural world are at least partially to blame for the city’s downfall. In fact, The Company’s biggest and most terrible experiment now lords of the city in the shape of a giant, violent, flying bear named Mord. On one of Rachel’s scavenging trips she finds a strange plant-like creature. She takes it home, not knowing exactly what it is. Rachel’s partner, Wick, disapproves of the strange creature, but Rachel cannot bring herself to give it up. Things become even more complicated when what she thought was a plant becomes a sentient being.

Is this one of those Bizarro fiction things? I mean there’s a giant, flying bear terrorizing a city, after all. No, skeptical reader! Don’t let the flying bear distract you! This book has a lot of heart and serious themes, actually. If you read Annihilation, or the entire Southern Reach Trilogy, you might be skeptical of that statement too, as I have seen many readers complain about Annihilation and its sequels lacking in character depth clarity of plot. Yes, Annihilation is a bit odd, and it does not fully explain everything. Borne’s plot is much more focused, and I was more attached to the main characters. Was everything perfectly explained? No. For example, if you want to know why the bear flies, well, he’s been experimented on, and that’s really all the book tells you. If details like that bother you, you might not like it. The science isn’t super scientific. This isn’t The Martian.

As I mentioned, the characters in Borne are more refined and easier to connect to than those in Annihilation. However, like Annihilation, Borne is written in first person from the perspective of a female character. VanderMeer writes from a female perspective well. Rachel is intelligent, strong-willed, caring, and resourceful, but she also has flaws and makes mistakes. Wick, her partner, is also a good character, but he was more difficult to connect to because of his murky past and because we are reading from Rachel’s perspective. And of course, I have to mention Borne himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is hard not to love this non-human character because he is so human.

As for the plot, I liked it, but it felt a little less experimental than VanderMeer’s trilogy, which might be better for some readers. As I said, the plot is much more clear-cut in Borne. The plot takes some predictable turns, but it was still a very unique and engrossing read. The ending wraps things up very well, but I found myself wishing that a few more events, characters, and creatures were explained in depth. This isn’t to say that there are huge plot holes. I just wanted to know more about the world and what happened to the city. The world building feels very vast. The city feels both desolate and feral, but the wider world is mentioned here and there, giving a sense that maybe there’s many other stories to tell.

One last thing I want to mention is why I, specifically, liked this novel. Your mileage may vary. As someone who has always enjoyed fiction and non-fiction that deals with the environment and nature, VanderMeer’s work just clicks with me. His descriptions of plants and animals and how humans connect with and exploit the natural world is just great. He examines so many themes of environmentalism, society, and humanity in a sci-fi novel with a flying bear in it. That impresses me! There’s a lot of emotional and intellectual depth in Rachel’s musings too. This is the first sci-fi novel that I have read that felt literary.

I debated on rating Borne 4 or 5 stars, but ultimately went with 4. It was a great read, but I expected the main story arch to be slightly less predictable, and well, I just wanted more from the book. I’m a harsh judge though, and even as I write this I am considering raising my rating…

 

Annihilation

AbyJV

These past two weeks I have been in Hong Kong. I actually read a lot during the flight there and back (14-16 hrs per flight), but I had no time to review anything because I was still working and adhering to deadlines with a 12 hour time difference to take into consideration. Excuses, excuses, but this has been one tough spring for me. But this is a book blog, so let’s move onto the books!

After reading Jeff Vandermeer’s creative writing guide for sci-fi and fantasy, Wonderbook, I was feeling guilty for not reading his actual novels. How can you take someone’s writing advice when you don’t even know if you like their own work? I don’t know, and admittedly that was not the right order to do things… but I can say I have read his work now, and yes, I liked it.

Annihilation is the first book in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. This first volume is very short at just shy of 200 pages, but it packs quite a punch. In the novel we follow “the biologist” as she and her colleagues explore a place called Area X. The Southern Reach is the entity that puts these expeditions together with volunteers from various fields. Previous groups have died or experienced changes in themselves. The biologist is on expedition number twelve with three other women: the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor. Together the four women enter Area X, knowing that they may never return– or at least not as who they once were.

I would call this novel a sci-fi thriller. The happenings of the novel have some basis in science, but it gets a little weird at times. There are some good suspenseful parts, and there are some survival/mystery elements that can easily hook readers. This is a novel that you have to be OK with being confused or lost. For much of the novel we see strange animals, plants, and places with few concrete explanations. The characters become unreliable at times because they are never quite sure if they can trust their senses. Despite the characters lacking actual names, I did not feel emotionally disconnected from them. The biologist is the narrator, and we get many scenes of her remembering her past. Plus, you’re in her head the whole time. However, I can see how any or all of these factors might leave the reader feeling lost, and the ending gives few answers. It is something to aware of, but if you like open-ended novels, this is such a quick and engrossing read that it does not hurt to try!

I gave Annihilation four out of five stars. It was quick, fun, suspenseful, and wonderfully weird. I wish that there had been a bit more direction and clarification in the ending especially, but I enjoyed what I read here and am looking forward to seeing what books two and three have to offer.