Top critical review
some loose ends were tied up, but there are lots of unanswered questions
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 27, 2017
I rushed through Annihilation, the first book in this series. Absolutely loved it. I quickly moved on to Authority, book two, and mostly like that, although there were some parts that dragged for me. I definitely liked it enough to immediately move on to book three, Acceptance. (Please note there may be spoilers for the first two books in what follows. But you definitely need to read those before you start with this one or you will be totally lost.)
Now, I saw some of what I liked from the first two books here, and I did finish it in three days (despite not having much time to read), so I just can't justify a one- or two-star rating. But neither did I like this as much as either of the first two books in the series.
Look, when you start reading a trilogy, you expect there to be some set-up in book one, some mysteries introduced in the first and even second books, but you want resolution by the end of book three, not new questions. Overall, I don't really feel like I got that. (I am, perhaps, most satisfied with the hints of what created the anomaly known as Area X, oddly enough. This is never spelled out for you, but there is an incident with the lighthouse keeper, Saul, and some speculation later on, and if you put those pieces together with some of the discussion of traveling to Area X, you can come up with something at least plausible. I think this part was done pretty well, actually, although you have to pay a lot of attention towards the end of the book and think about it for a bit afterwards, as well. Too much explanation would have made me roll my eyes because there's just no explaining something so alien.)
But, the first two books were character studies, first of the biologist from the twelfth expedition into Area X, and second of Control, the newly-installed director of Southern Reach, the agency that investigates and guards against Area X. And you kind of expect the book to continue in that vein, but the characters just aren't nearly as compelling in this book. Part of my issue here may stem from the multiple viewpoints -- Control, Ghost Bird (a double of the biologist created by Area X), the psychologist from book one who was also the director of Southern Reach before Control, and Saul Evans, keeper of the lighthouse that is discussed often in all three books. We also read a document written by the biologist from book one, who is sort of a fifth viewpoint character. (And if you wonder what happened to her at the end of book one, you will at least get an answer for that. It is weird, but it is resolution, and it doesn't come out of nowhere.)
This is really too many people to do the same type of character study we saw in book. But, I feel like the author is attempting to do so anyway. We get a lot of information on the backgrounds of the psychologist and of Saul. Both had experience in Area X before the change, and we read a lot about that time. Some of Saul's parts do help explain (or at least, I think they do) the formation of Area X. But there is a lot of extraneous stuff, as well. Like his relationship with a fisherman. I swear they go to bed together about 10 times in less than 25% of the book. (There is no graphic detail so don't worry about that.) I do like Saul's journal entries about the lighthouse. They don't seem relevant at first, but the changes in them accurately reflect his underlying mental state.
Anyway, I can buy Saul as a viewpoint character. I am not feeling the psychologist at all. I find her hard to sympathize with as she seems to have shunned personal relationships for most of her life, and the attempts to describe her personal life involve her hanging out at a bowling alley bar with people she doesn't know well (not even their names, apparently, or she doesn't care about their names). I think a lot of what she offered to the story could've been handled in Saul's sections, with Control finding a few of her documents to complete the picture.
And then, the other issues.
(1) Everyone is always trying to go to "the island." The biologist's husband. The biologist. Control and Ghost Bird. Even Grace (the Southern Reach assistant director from the past book). But why? What is so special about the island? It's not where resolution happens. I just don't get its prominent place in the story.
(2) Lowry. This guy survived the first expedition into Area X. He is the only person who did. I understand that this gives him some kind of personal knowledge and authority. But he has a couple of screws loose and I absolutely don't understand why he has so much influence over everyone else or how he is able to maintain a position in what I assume is some kind of intelligence agency. He does have some dirt on some other characters, but those are his subordinates, essentially, not his superiors (who would actually have a say in whether he keeps his job).
(3) The Seance and Science Brigade. These folks showed up in Saul's sections. It is implied that some of Control's family members may have had a connection. Mostly they just seemed annoying. Their role in everything is not explained. It seems they exist to annoy Saul, to trespass and vandalize, etc.
(4) Control. I don't understand at all what happened to him. Or why he was driven to do what he did, at the end.
(5) I guess I understand that missions were sent into Area X to understand what was going on. Because it was clearly harmful to people who had been there when it was created/formed/whatever. But it sounds like potentially hundreds of missions were sent, with hundreds of people lost. It seems like, at some point, you would cut your losses. Especially since, when people do come back (if they do at all), they rarely have any useful information. They leave all their journals in the lighthouse. No one has brought physical samples back for a long time. What is it that people are hoping to accomplish by going in here? It seems like Area X might've stayed stable but for human interference. Granted, I guess the characters couldn't know that.
(6) We keep being told that the biologist is the psychologist's secret weapon against Area X. I'm not convinced the reason for this was established. Yes, she's socially awkward and interested in nature and yes, her husband was on a previous expedition. But given the biologist's ultimate fate, I guess the psychologist was just wrong?
(7) We find out at some point in the previous book, or early in this one, that the psychologist went on an unauthorized mission into Area X and brought back a plant (the plant is definitely in book 2). Why was she able to do this when none of the official expeditions were all that successful (her companion was clearly damaged by the experience, but she didn't really change)?
Anyway, there were enough dropped threads and missed connections that I was not terribly satisfied with the conclusion of this trilogy. (I pretty much only read speculative fiction these days so it's not like I'm new to the genre, so my issue is not lack of familiarity with the types of stories that are told.) I like Mr. Vandermeer's writing style and would definitely consider buying other books of his. I'm just a little disappointed with this book. The series started out so strongly!