The Southern Reach Trilogy - Book Review

The first 30 pages of the Southern Reach Trilogy had me hooked. Here we have a story about a mysterious wilderness area known only as Area X, and we have a secretive government agency called the Southern Reach whose imperative it is to figure out what the hell is going on there. We learn a few things about Area X right off the bat - that you can't bring modern technology there. That there is an invisible border which can only be crossed in a single place. That eleven expeditions have gone before us, and that some have ended in disaster while others have returned without anything interesting at all to report. And so with this premise, we have the makings of an excellent science-fiction mystery that fully prepared me to dive in and uncover the secrets of Area X.

Immediately I felt as if I were engrossed in a Stephen King novel - something like It perhaps - one of those stories where everything seems perfectly normal except that you know something is wrong here.  It's a wonderfully oppressive writing style that helped me feel the oddness of Area X as if I were there myself. An except from the first few pages, where our protagonist is describing their base camp in Area X:

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

It's beautiful prose and it does the trick of drawing you in to Area X. It feels spooky in just the right way. It makes me want to know what the low moaning is, and what other mysteries are hiding in this creepy wilderness. And for the first half of the first book, I really thought that I was in for a treat.

But as the book wore on, the prose started to wear a bit thin on me. I don't really want to dig through flowery descriptive passages searching for meaning, and I felt like there was a bit too much of that going on. Too often the plot would take a back seat to long-winded descriptions of the environment or of some disturbing or irrelevant memory being relived by a protagonist. There were, for my tastes, far too many of these detours. And while the book maintains a consistent, high-quality level of prose, it just seems like a lot of is there for its own sake. The author seems more interested in showing you this place that he's dreamed up, and the inner workings of his characters, than in actually telling a compelling story. 

In the end, the mysteries of Area X were revealed, but I felt like I had to torture the resolution out of the pages. I think there are readers out there who would enjoy this book more than I did. You hear it said that "the journey is more important than the destination", implying that as long as you enjoy the ride, it doesn't really matter where the story is going. If you agree with that sentiment, then maybe this book is for you. For me, this book wandered a bit too aimlessly, and when it finally pulled up to the destination, all I felt was a weary relief that I could move on to a more exciting book.

You can buy the Southern Reach Trilogy hardcover, containing all 3 books of the trilogy, for $35.00 new at Powell's. Or you can use google to find it cheaper somewhere else.