By Jeff VanderMeer
We did it! The Southern Reach Trilogy is finished!
Before I get into the third book, Acceptance, I’d like to talk a little about the series as a whole. I’m still fully of the opinion that the second book, Authority, could’ve existed as 150 pages lighter with no real drawback in regard to plot or characters. Honestly, that’s my main complaint about the series. Well, main complaint from an editor’s standpoint when looking at things like pacing and reader interest levels. It’s possible to be subtle without being long-winded, and Authority dropped the ball off a three story building with that one.
Onward to Acceptance though! Overall? Much better pace. Acceptance starts us out with the habit of narrator changes via chapter change! I couldn’t have been happier to see that style of narration for this book. It was exactly what the series needed. It not only sped the pace but filled in massive knowledge gaps for the reader as the story progressed.
Control has a less grating personality this time ‘round. That is to say, he isn’t changed much, but he’s broken from the “tortured spy” gimmick that cropped up too much in Authority.
Grace . . . well, I don’t really want to talk about Grace. Besides existing in Acceptance as the “mentor” figure to answer some questions—spoiler: that would’ve been answered anyway via the biologist’s letter—before the journey could begin, she had no real impact with the other characters, her environment, her situation, or herself. No change from the second book, really. Still kinda unnecessarily aggressive. Still wanting to act as boss lady. Still a flat character. Sure, we get some tidbits: she’s a divorced, middle-aged woman with adult children that she doesn’t see often enough but also doesn’t have much of a relationship with. So? This isn’t enough to let a reader feel connected to Grace. Not really. We don’t meet these people. They may as well not exist. The story would be just fine without them. And I know VanderMeer is more than capable of making the average important! He does it with Control’s chess piece. It’s beautifully done. It’s practically a character, and it’s a better one than Grace.
Ghost bird is still pretty good. Though, being fair, she’s also the most dynamic of the three. She is, by far, the most internally driven character. Part of her curiosity is the reader’s endeavors to figure out what part Ghost Bird plays in the story. Why does she exist? What’s her purpose? Is there one at all? Of course, Ghost Bird asking these questions of herself is the complication given to her character. She’s self-aware enough and brave enough to analyze everything. Even herself.
However! We get new characters in Acceptance! The lighthouse keeper and the director both make comebacks in the finale of the Southern Reach Trilogy. The lighthouse keeper is wonderfully written and full of life. He’s a believable person and, as a reader, he’s very easy to sympathize with. His life. His story. His actions are led by emotions that are all too easy to understand.
The director is a little more difficult to like and understand, but it’s really just the good writing of her damage and the way she relates to the word—similar to the biologist—that makes her compelling. In comparison with what we got of her in Annihilation, this version of the director and her memories are much more impactful in Acceptance.
The ending. Oh boy. So, I was really looking forward to the finale of the Southern Reach Trilogy. All my questions answered. Right? All my theories shot or developed. Right? Nope, not really. You will get answers from Acceptance—here’s the part where my significant other says it’s like I’m going through stages of grief with this book, and maybe he has a point—but you won’t get what you’re looking for. Probably. Me? I was seeing tons of buildup and lines drawn in the sand for a reveal that never happened. In the end, the finale felt “just okay” or “a little disappointing” compared to my expectations paired with what VanderMeer was building. With so much preparation, so many embeds, and callbacks, and twirled oddities of phrase, you get your final answer: (spoilers?) it was an accident of fate. And that . . . That, people, is disappointment wrapped in lethargy. An “accident of fate” is one level up and adjacent to “it was all a dream.”
Now then. Was it a horrible, terrible, badly written ending? No. It fit the story well enough. You won’t end the series confused about what happened, broadly speaking. It makes sense on paper, but isn’t brilliant. There’s nothing patently wrong with the ending. There’s enough strings to lead to the right conclusions, or the characters make them for you, and you’re more likely to end on an “oh” rather than an “ah ha!”
I still love VanderMeer’s writing style! There are more descriptive gems in Acceptance than in the other two books in this series combined. It was a delight to read them all! My general apathy about the Southern Reach Trilogy’s story, particularly the ending, wouldn’t stop me from picking up another book written by VanderMeer. From this small sample of his work, I’m inclined to think he excels at novels more-so than series. I’d be curious to try out a singular work from him. Maybe if another title finds its way to my bookshelf in the future.