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Review: Southern Reach Trilogy

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars overall

Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, & Acceptance, by Jeff Vandermeer (2014)

Rating this was tough because it is actually three books, which were not all equally successful, to my mind....

Annihilation is great. Cohesive plot, tons of intrigue, and definitely made me want to read more. The shortest and tightest of the three books. 5 stars.

Acceptance seems to lose it's way. It's meandering and sort of like someone describing a very long, very complicated dream. Too many repetitive inner thoughts and unnecessary details. 1 star.

Authority is not as good as the first book, but brings a bit more structure to the narrative. Answers some questions, with a lot still unanswered. I kept waiting for some "big reveal" that never came. 2 stars.

This series focuses on "a weird dimension that exists just one step to the side of our own, and may or may not be extraterrestrial in nature." The region now known as Area X is separated from the rest of Earth by an invisible border, which came down suddenly and without warning. Anyone left inside Area X when the border came down was lost. A government agency known as the Southern Reach was then created to study Area X, and begins to send teams of people back into Area X to explore. Most never return, or come back forever altered in mysterious ways. Unreliable narrators abound, and you get the feeling that reality is always on the move.

The first book follows the story of the 12th expedition into Area X, and specifically the experiences of one of the members of that team, called simply "the biologist," because when you join a team you sacrifice your identity and are known only by your purpose to the mission. The biologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, the linguist... in Annihilation we see them navigate the newness of Area X and try, unsuccessfully, to understand the phenomena at play there, including a buried tower with living, breathing words etched into it's walls, and an oozing (maybe alien?) creature that roams it's stairwells. Area X is like the scariest outdoor haunted house, and the first book sets things up masterfully for a sequel...

Acceptance takes place entirely outside of Area X, within the Southern Reach organization (and being in the Southern Reach was not nearly as interesting as being inside Area X). It mainly follows the new Director, who goes by the name "Control," as he interacts with the people under his command, and becomes increasingly entrenched in the world of cryptic and weird clues that his predecessor has left behind. As the reader, we are inside his head most of the time, and it's a chaotic and monotonous place to be. Kind of like a lazy drawl. It's very much what I'd call an "idea book" - very cerebral, with lots of expounding on the meanings of... ugh, I don't even know. Reality and sanity, I guess.

In the final book, the narrative bounces from character to character, sometimes inside Area X, sometimes in the Southern Reach. It was more enjoyable, but even when inside Area X, the intrigue is sort of deadened. It becomes less like a terrifying, real-life haunted house and more like a haunted house theme park. With a lot of existential crisis-ing.

It's weird (in fact, Vandermeer is known for his "new weird" writing - a genre associated with "weird tales" and speculative fiction), and it's a little disappointing. I gave the whole series a 3 mainly because the first book is so good. Could you just read Annihilation and then skip the other two? Sure! If you're curious to learn answers, insofar as they exist, I'd say just Google it to see what happens in the other two books. *shrug*


UP NEXT: Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

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