Top positive review
Thought-provoking and incredibly rewarding - can be complex
Reviewed in the United States on July 10, 2018
First things first, this book (technically three books) is not for everyone or for every occasion. This isn't a quick casual read. Feel free to read some of the bad reviews and attempt to piece together the real truth here, which is: this is an amazing book for anyone that is willing to engage it at an intelligent level with their full attention. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, or it doesn't sound like something you can fit in right now, save it for later or pass altogether.
I'm going to proceed with this review as if these three novels: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, are one novel. Mostly for simplicity, but also because I believe that the best way to read these novels is back to back, as if they were parts of a single novel. Though they are very different from each other and explore different themes, characters, and even have slightly different styles, they are linked in ways that a typical trilogy is not. I like to think of them as three segments of a circle. While I'd think of a standard trilogy/series more like a dotted line.
Area X, or the Southern Reach Trilogy, is one of the finest novels I've ever read. Maybe not in my top 10 of all time (amongst Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Dune, Catch 22...) but definitely in my top 20. It has everything a serious reader could possibly want in a novel: beautiful and evocative (if haunting) prose, distinct and complex characters, an unbelievably well realized setting, a mysterious and engaging story, and rich thought-provoking subtexts and themes. It just doesn't hold your hand, which can make it challenging at times. If you begin to read with the idea that you are setting off on a path into a thick wood at dusk, by Authority, the trail will be faint and the light of day near gone, and by Acceptance, you're lost, its full night, and there are sounds all around you, mostly from unknown sources. You light your lamp to see, but it's almost more terrifying in the gloom than in the dark.
And that leads us to what kind of book this is: it's a creepy one. In fact, a scene about midway through Authority is easily the creepiest scene I've ever read in any book - and I've read a lot of creepy books (honorable mention to the phone ringing in the Ruins).
Again though, this book isn't for everyone. I can't stress that enough. It simply has a different mission than a more mainstream novel. You wouldn't sit down to a John Grisham book and be like, 'not as good as The Sound and the Fury', that wouldn't make sense. If you sit down to Area X with those kinds of expectations and aren't ready for a quick turn to something dramatically different, it will fail you, and you it. Personally, I turned my reading into a kind of daily meditation. I found that I could only read it when my mind was fresh and at its sharpest, and even then, I'd catch myself continually wandering. The imagery and pace are seductive to mind wandering, and I simply pulled back, went back a few lines, and started again. This weird mindful reading and mindful awareness of my own crazy thoughts was a singular and very rewarding experience. As a result though, I had to read some ‘regular’ books on the side to relax in the evenings.
This is a must read if you think you can do it. Don't be afraid, just be prepared. I'm thrilled to have discovered VanderMeer and plan on reading his other works over the coming years.