Hey remember when I used to finish series?! Yeah. Me either. BUT I finished this one! The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer is a weird Sci-Fi series about a zone of land that seems like it should be straight out of the X-Files and the shadowy government agency that studies it.
Area X is a stretch of land along ‘the coast’ that has a completely unique ecology to the rest of the environment around it. Not only that but it’s surrounded by an invisible barrier. What comes in doesn’t normally come out, and if it does then it usually doesn’t come back whole. Our shadow government agency, Southern Reach, is parked right next to the border and spends their time trying to retrieve samples, send expeditions, and learn to control or contain at the least the expansion of the Area. All of this to… less than desirable results. Book one Annihilation, follows an expedition into Area X. It’s certainly not the first, and almost all the expeditions prior to this have led to the death, disappearance, or madness of the members that went into Area X. Our main character is ‘The Biologist’. Her name is her duty on the expedition. In this first book we get the world built up around us and it’s pretty damn glorious. I loved this one, so strange and the tension was built so well. The ending is vague – and this will be a pattern you see repeated across the board with these books. We don’t quite get an answer about what happened to her or the other members of her team.
The second book, naturally doesn’t tell us much more either. Instead we’re sent back to the ‘real world’ with Control, who is taking over the Southern Reach as the new director in Authority. This is my least favorite of the series, mostly because I grew to loathe Control. However the book has some excellent strengths. I loved the back and forth that was involved with taking power over after how our previous Directory left (which you find more about as you read). His dealing with employees strongly loyal to their former leader, and new employees who have… a lot going on. Not to mention this is a ‘shadowy government agency’ and well, everyone is up to something. The ending of this book is the strongest, a huge event occurs, stranding Control and the mysterious Ghost Bird together.
In Acceptance they’re kept together and forced to navigate a landscape that’s radically different. I won’t say too much here, but things just go down the pooper at the end of book two and this book is the clawing, grasping attempt to recover… something or anything.
Overall as a story I think the structure was insanely clever, down to the titles and the character names. Each represents something and even Control, who I stand by my statement and I hate, meant something in the end. It showed us something. There is an overall message to this series that I liked, it conveyed it well. My only issues was perhaps some pacing and the final book’s choppy setup. By the third book we end up with 4-5 perspectives and it’s just too much for such a short book. The book barely clocks over 300 pages (my edition) so by the time I’d be absorbed in one character and thrown into another with an actual different narrative style I’d get a little grouchy. There is one character, the one with the unique narration, that I felt would have been super strong if we’d gotten one maybe two entries from. Yet we spent a lot of time with them so we could get a heavy explanation of what the backend of the organization was like. I didn’t want that and I was bummed out that so much time was spent there. However the newest character, Saul, was a wonderful addition and he gave us some history to Area X. Frankly I would have read the whole book from Saul’s perspective.
Some people say if you read the series as one novel it reads better, I can’t attest to that but there is an attractive bind up online that can be purchased as opposed to three books singularly. Maybe one day I’ll return to Area X, read it one swoop and I can report back on if it was a cleaner read. Besides the complaints above I don’t really have anything else wrong with the book to mention. I loved the rest of the characters and the way Jeff Vandermeer built them. Even as much as I hated Control I appreciated the work put into him. The plot itself was good and as stated the structure for the most part was fantastic. The only thing that would keep me from whole heartedly recommending this is it’s a niche book. You are not going to like this if you don’t like weird fiction, you won’t like this if you don’t like vague endings. Boy that ending, that was so frustrating. I’m usually okay with vague but I’m still thinking over that one. Still a bit frustrated with the abruptness and the vagueness. It has me staring off into space a random moments. So be aware of that going in. Vague ending, weird fiction, but a good ride! Did anyone else read it? What were your thoughts?