By Jeff VanderMeer
Alright, well, the Southern Reach Trilogy had a good start; I’ll give it a big thumbs-up there.
Before I get into the second book, I’ll remind you I haven’t yet read the third and final book of the series. However, Authority, while well-written when looking solely at craft and structure, borders far too close to boring in too many instances. Authority simply could not keep up with the gem that Annihilation was.
Annihilation left us on the brink of great change. But Authority rapidly turns that suspense of “what’s next?” into purgatory. Nothing substantial really occurs in Authority until page 179, and even that amounts to a really, really obvious embed with a payoff that is never actually explained. Another “big reveal” moment on page 336 is rendered pointless from an occurrence on page 195. These are two of three major plot points in the novel.
Then there’s the characters: I don’t like them. Any of them. VanderMeer gave me not a single reason to pity them or empathize with them. Honestly, they were flat, vague archetypes of “tortured spy,” “bitchy boss lady,” and one iteration or another of “crazy scientist.” Looking back on Annihilation, I can say those characters weren’t incredibly well-rounded either, but they weren’t cardboard with microscopes!
Control, Authority’s narrator, isn’t really a bad guy (and his name is hilarious after you figure out what’s going on—which won’t take you as long as the book seems to think it will) and thankfully has a bit more personality than other characters. Authority is written with the same kind of one-track narrative that Annihilation was, so all you’ve got are Control’s thoughts and actions and visuals to go on. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’d say a sizable portion of literature is written that way. Here comes the “but.”
But . . . Authority drags on for so long, not only are you going to start forgetting details that don’t matter anyway—and maybe I’ll eat a few of those words in book three. I hope so—but you’re also going to end up more exhausted than the narrator. He goes through too much normal. Not the “Wow, this is too par for the course for this situation. Something is wrong. Something is going to happen” off-kilter normal. No, it’s the kind of normal that is forgettable and dull. This is bad. Books should not be sludge to walk through.
Overall, Authority feels like a holding pattern between books one and three that could’ve been 150 pages shorter. I very, very rarely struggle through books, and Authority almost became one of them.
Before you convince yourself never to read Authority, don’t give up quite yet. If you come prepared for a slow pace, you can make it. I was curious enough about possible explanations for events in book one—not great for a whole book to hinge on its predecessor, but work with me here—that I kept going. VanderMeer is still a wonderful descriptive writer. My personal favorite description was on page 328: “. . . black rocks as sharp as shark fins.” A long way to read for a phrase so short, but you’ll find other descriptive gems hidden throughout Authority’s pages.
Fingers crossed that the next book, VanderMeer’s third and final installment for the Southern Reach Trilogy: Acceptance, gives me a sense of fulfillment and closure! And, just maybe, picks up the pace.