Book Review: Annihilation and Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Ok, I’ll admit it. I originally requested these based solely on the covers (what a gorgeous rabbit-based design!) and a cursory glance at the blurb, “sounds vaguely sci-fi, I’ll give it a go”. I couldn’t have predicted how much I’d end up enjoying them; so much in fact that it’s taken me a while to attempt a review of Annihilation because I simply didn’t know how to put it into words. I still don’t, but if I don’t have a go at it now I’m not sure I’ll ever manage.

Annihilation *****

Annihilation

The central character, known only as the Biologist, has volunteered for an expedition into Area X: a stretch of coastline cut off from the rest of civilization for reasons that are unclear at the beginning of the novel. The book follows her trek into the increasingly strange landscape beyond the ‘border’, and the things she encounters there.

It’s been compared to Lovecraft for obvious reasons: it takes the form of an account written by a character who is trying to make sense of something unearthly. The writer is afflicted by a creeping dread, a haziness to reality and a sense of monstrous things just outside their field of vision. But rather than just pressing all the usual ‘atmospheric horror’ buttons, VanderMeer couples it with a haunting beauty captured in the immersive and almost poetic descriptions of the landscape from the biologist’s perspective, and this is where the book really stands out. It’s a short book but not an easy read and I found that quite refreshing. It doesn’t feel the need to conform to a predictable narrative. I’m sure that’ll throw some people, but it’s worth the extra effort for the richness you’ll get out of it. Area X has certainly stayed with me several months after finishing the book, and I’m not sure it’ll leave me even after Acceptance is published in September…

You can download a preview of Annihilation Here at Waterstones.

 

Authority ****

Authority

I’ve just finished reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority.

The first thing that struck me was the contrast to Annihilation, and to be honest it threw me a bit and it took a while for my brain to get back up to speed. The first in the trilogy had seemed to me a beautifully formed piece all on its own and I loved the way it had immersed me in the landscape of Area X through that strikingly vivid and surreal description. I suppose I’d been eager to leap straight back into that world, so at first the second book seemed almost drab and tedious in comparison.

 I’d empathised with the environment and the biologist in book one, her observations on the landscape and balance between objective analysis and delighted immersion. In the second book the environment is the (relative) normality of Southern Reach, the organisation and hierarchy. Part of me wonders if a reader who had worked in a similar obscure governmental environment or office would connect to Authority the same way I did to Annihilation.

But as I read on it occurred to me that the books are not all that dissimilar. If Annihilation shone with the living, gleaming terroir of Area X, then Authority sets down the opposing terroir of Southern Reach: the dysfunctional resistance so bogged down in reports and dusty files, internal intrigue and bureaucracy that you can’t help but question whether it achieves anything useful. But, as in Annihilation, the descriptions lay down a fertile mulch of information, glimpses and hints, secrets revealed just enough to leave you hungry for more. There’s an almost purposefully mundane office-y feel to many passages interspersed with a strangeness that keeps you on edge as though Area X is seeping in around the edges of the pages. Despite my slow start, by the last third of the book I was hooked and sailing through the pages, relishing the challenge of it. September and Acceptance seem much too far away!

 Authority is available from Waterstones Here.

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