One of the most intriguing and eerie series of books I’ve read so far this year is the Southern Reach trilogy, which is a genre bending tale of a mysterious stretch of coastline – known as Area X – that has experienced some kind of catastrophic environmental disaster and is now the subject of scientific expeditions by shadowy government agency, the Southern Reach.
I reviewed the first part of the trilogy, Annihilation, earlier in the year. It was a genuinely frightening read, full of moments of horror and unanswered questions.
The second and third books in the series are very different. Book two, Authority, moves the action to the Southern Reach facility, as a new director – who calls himself Control – arrives to replace the previous director, who never returned from the last expedition into Area X.
Control is immediately uneasy and out of his depth. The assistant director challenges his authority constantly, and he uncovers a number of strange items in his predecessor’s office. As he tries to get to grips with the facility’s staff and their theories on Area X, he struggles with conspiracies, sabotage and failure at every turn.
Authority was my least favourite of the three books, simply because it was so different to the first book. With Annihilation, I was drawn into the action as the expedition made their way into Area X. Each new discovery had me holding my breath, flicking through the pages as fast as I could. In contrast, the revelations in Authority are subtle, a slow burn. This book fills in some of the gaps in the story, providing us with the background to the Southern Reach and explaining its approach to exploring the abandoned coastline.
Like Annihilation, an air of unease pervades the story, as Control finds it impossible to assert his influence on the Southern Reach. His discoveries only add to the sense that something much bigger is happening. But it’s a story of power struggles and politics, rather than the journey into the unknown we encountered in the first book.
The third book, Acceptance, takes us back to Area X. This part of the story begins to bring together bits of the mystery from the earlier novels, fleshing out some of the characters who we encountered briefly in a different guise, or via recollection, such as the lighthouse keeper.
It takes the story of Area X back to the beginning, before the disaster that transformed the place so profoundly. By humanising some of the people who lived there, by giving them lives and loves and a past, it makes what happens to them seem all the more terrifying.
The Southern Reach trilogy is a genuinely chilling read that presents more questions than it answers. But it gives just enough information to create a picture for the reader, allowing their imagination to fill in the shadows with whatever it is that might be lurking there.
The story deals brilliantly with the uncanny and our fear of the unknown. One of the reasons it is so disturbing is because it plays on our need to control the world around us, which Area X simply won’t allow. With its expeditions, the Southern Reach is constantly attempting to learn more about the place, always tweaking the parameters of the mission in the hope that this time it will be enough. But as they fail to find the answers, they become more desperate and go too far in the name of discovery, dehumanising the expedition members just as much as Area X does.
It’s a story that transcends genre: part horror, part science fiction, part literary psychological thriller. It’s also full of striking imagery that really evokes the world it describes: all abandoned villages reclaimed by nature, desolate shorelines and inexplicable phenomenon.
Possibly one of the most memorable stories you’ll read all year.
Find out more:
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy), on Amazon (affiliate link)
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy), on Amazon (affiliate link)