Completed 4/18/2015, Reviewed 4/23/2015
This is the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. It’s a dark, creepy, short novel about a group of explorers investigating a quarantined tract of land within which something rather catastrophic or apocalyptic may have occurred. It reminded me of “Hyperion”, not for the “Canterbury Tales” aspect, but for the exploration of something horrifying. The writing is very uneven, but the mystery gripped through the end.
The story begins with four women, members of the twelfth expedition to investigate a land that has been off-limits for years. No one knows the results of the other expeditions. The women don’t even know their own mission’s expectations. By some unknown means, they are transported into this land, set up camp, and begin exploring. The first thing they find is a tower that seems to be shoved into the earth. Inside, the left wall is covered with some kind of mossy plant life, growing in the shape of words. Not just words, but Old Testament-ish prose of warnings and condemnation. This continues down into the dark depths, evoking fear and anxiety among the team. But of course, they have to find the writing’s origin.
I’ll start with the writing. It is the best part of the book and also the worst. When Vandermeer is describing action or engaging the characters in conversation, it flows beautifully; it’s incredibly readable. The problem is the descriptive prose. Good prose is very important to me. It should move the reader between the scenes, setting the mood, tension, and pace of the book. Instead, it grinds the reader down to a halt. The book’s first sentence alone nearly made me put it back on the shelf. I trudged on and was rewarded with tense personality conflicts, heartbreaking backstory, and tragic horror.
Lately, I’ve been doing more research on the books I’ve been reading, perusing other people’s reviews and plot summaries for insights I may have missed. I opened with a comparison to “Hyperion”, but many readers have noted that the horror is very Lovecraftian. I have yet to read any of his work (hangs head in shame) but I understand a bit of the Cthulu mythos and have seen some effective films based on it. Yeah, it has that feel. The progression of discoveries in the creepy environs is almost as effective as the original “Alien” film.
It’s a surprisingly short book, only about 200 pages. In that small space, Vandermeer crams an excellent main character, the narrator, giving her backstory and motivation, but no name. In fact, none of the four characters know each other’s names, only their occupations. It creates a lack of intimacy that keeps them, and the reader, in a state of constant tension. And there is a sense that the narrator is unreliable. What she calls a tower, the rest call a tunnel. In fact, all the characters are hypnotized to help them deal with the stressful nature of their mission. This calls into question the narrator’s interpretation of the whole experience. But she’s a great character, remarkably well-developed in such a short amount of space.
I don’t know anything about the next two books in the trilogy. I liked the horror premise enough that I’m willing to bear the bad prose for some more terrifying experiences. This book was nominated for a Nebula. As I blog this, the award hasn’t been given, but I don’t think this should win. I liked it a lot, but the writing is just too uneven for me. I’m giving this book three stars out of five. Good, but I think it in better hands, it could have been great.