Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation / Authority / AcceptanceThe Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation / Authority / Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fascinating

NB: Review is for the trilogy overall. On an individual basis, I’d probably give Annihilation 5 stars, Authority 4 stars, and Acceptance 4.5 stars.

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Short review: As fascinating as it was frustrating; as triumphant as it was dark; beautiful, if occasionally flawed. An original and thoughtful book.

Longer review (minimal spoilers):

I found the first couple of chapters of Annihilation difficult and distant, much like the narrator herself. However, it was worth the time to get to know her, and the novel; I was, I admit, disappointed that she didn’t narrate all the way through, although she does reappear throughout 2 and 3.

Any fan of Lovecraft would find a lot to enjoy in Southern Reach. Haunting, lyrical writing; endless spirals of paranoia; complex, layered reflection; unreliable narrators; and something I refer to in books in my layman way as the “total ruination of a human being”, ie the deeply personal apocalypse of a single individual.

I waffle a lot, and I mean A LOT, about character interiority and emotional landscape (for more on that, check with The Master, Donald Maass, and his incredible nonfic book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”). Southern Reach is absolutely rammed with emotional interiority. The internal landscape of every character is intricately, relentlessly, and painfully integrated into the larger narrative. The events of childhood and the essence of self is of equal importance (really, more) to the plot as the various military maneuverings and political ploys. The books almost verge into being a character study, and you could read them like that if you chose, with the background events a canvass for painting their personal woes.

The creepiness factor was wonderful and evocative, in the best sort of horror tradition (cosmic madness of a single brain, natch). Particular standout moments: Control ascending into Whitby’s attic, which could have been cheap but was executed brilliantly. The deepening gloom and stratospheric levels of paranoia were *so* good in the best way.

My favorite aspect–there were many–is the reoccuring theme of not acknowledging things beyond understanding, as a way of controlling or resisting them (ie, refusing to look at a monstrous sight) which sounds odd, but will make sense when you read the novels. It was just done really well and has, of course, scientific implications (i.e., the observation effect).

However, there were sections which gave me frustration, and in the end I reluctantly have marked the series down to 4 stars. It came down to a question of structure, and ineffectuality re the characters. Hardly any of the POV characters *achieved* anything, and by that I mean (because I don’t want to give spoilers) in a normal Cthulhu-esque novel, your investigator character would go off investigating, getting steadily madder as they uncover secret after secret.

In Southern Reach, the emphasis of the books tilts very strongly to examining their pasts, and internal worlds, in order to give clout to the decisions made. All fine and good. But in terms of advancing the plot, very little progress is made by the characters themselves; they discover things, but don’t understand their significance; they succeed or fail largely on terms not defined by them. In short, if Southern Reach were a Cthulhu novel, most of the investigators go mad while barely uncovering any clues.

When information is revealed, it tends to come all at once, usually in the form of the right person asking the right questions at the right time. It’s a little bit akin to afore-mentioned Cthulhu investigator getting frustrated and doing a google search, a few chapters from the end (okay, not that bad, not nearly–I’m exaggerating–but you know.)

Yes, that sounds finicky, but I am a finicky reader, and when–for me–combined with a resolution that felt abrupt, I couldn’t quite justify 5 stars. What can I say, I’m a picky bastard. I’d still recommend the book unreservedly as I think it is provocative and memorable; it not only rewards multiple re-reads, but practically demands them.

View all my reviews

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