Review: “Acceptance,” Jeff Vandermeer

Pros: Lovecraftian horror and madness for modern readers
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Jeff Vandermeer’s Acceptance (Book Three of The Southern Reach Trilogy) takes us back inside the mix of pristine wilderness and Lovecraftian madness that is Area X. The area is spreading, and all of our primary characters find themselves trapped inside. Through a mix of journal entries and other point-of-view shifts both past and present we explore the secrets that Area X still keeps. The primary PoV characters are Saul (the lighthouse keeper referenced in the other novels, who was present through the creation of Area X), the Director/the Psychologist, the Biologist and Ghost Bird, and Control. In particular we get the run-down on the Director’s previous trip into Area X (with Whitby) before the twelfth expedition took place. We finally find out more or less what Area X is and how it came to be, but it isn’t explored too thoroughly. The wrap-up of the series doesn’t take away too much of the mystery and madness that made Annihilation so special; nor does it leave too much unexplained. I found it to be just the right balance.

I think every writer has words and images that they return to. I thought it spoke to the heart of this series that the words and concepts that seem to return repeatedly are compost, colonizing, and stitching. They all work themselves neatly into the secret heart of the madness that seethes within every inch of Area X. I’m frankly surprised to see a story such as this trilogy that can maintain that Lovecraftian sense of madness and horror while also providing just enough explanation to satisfy a modern audience.

I found Saul’s story particularly interesting. Even though it’s largely a means to an end for a fascinating reveal, Vandermeer gives Saul plenty of personality and layers, as well as a connection to the modern-day story through the Director/the Psychologist.

The original Annihilation is still my favorite of the trilogy, but the story as a whole is fantastic. There’s enough detail that I think it will reward re-reading a time or two as well. In particular there are some uses of hypnosis that cast previous events in a very different light.

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Review: “Authority,” Jeff Vandermeer

Pros: Lovecraftian horror and madness for modern readers
Cons: Didn’t like the main character
Rating: 4 out of 5

Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority (Book Two of The Southern Reach Trilogy) follows on the heels of his Annihilation, in which the Biologist’s journal took us on a journey through madness in a mysterious Area X. Now we get to find out much of the behind-the-scenes as we concentrate on The Southern Reach itself, the secret government agency that oversees research into Area X. “Control” (John Rodriguez) is the new acting director of The Southern Reach, and he’s our central figure here. He’s an odd protagonist, seeing as in most books he’d be an antagonistic or even enemy character, not the main character. Three out of the four expedition twelve members have returned, and Control believes he’s likely to get the best answers from the Biologist, so he concentrates on questioning her. Some of the strange characters that populate The Southern Reach aren’t friendly to the new authority figure, so he has to fight their attempts to undermine him at every turn–all the while attempting to reconstruct the details behind the scenes of Annihilation.

This book is a fascinating autopsy of the rotting corpse that is The Southern Reach. Control ends up researching the previous Director of the agency as well as the twelfth expedition, seeing as she was also the head of that expedition. What he finds indicates that the madness that infects the pristine wilderness that is Area X may have infiltrated the agency as well. And the Director might not have been its only outlet.

Control is a weird character. I wasn’t entirely fond of him and his strange family history, which dampened my enthusiasm for the book a bit. His mother and grandfather are spies, and he’s the black sheep of the family who keeps screwing up assignments. His mother seems to have his best interests at heart, but does she really? And just how much is she manipulating him anyway? She certainly has an interest in The Southern Reach that she hasn’t expressed to him. Through her he also has a connection to a mysterious person he only knows as The Voice, to whom he reports by phone. This strange character berates and swears at him at every turn as he fails to learn enough to satisfy.

The story is intense, with plenty of vividness and detail. The Southern Reach is a character in its own right, made up of many pieces of the normal turned on its head. And as for Control, he’s becoming obsessed with the Biologist and her place in things. Even though I didn’t adore this installment in the way I did Annihilation, it’s still quite worth reading if you enjoyed the first novel.

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Review: “Annihilation,” Jeff Vandermeer

Pros: Lovecraftian horror and madness for modern readers
Cons: Clinical tone might put off some readers
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (Book One of The Southern Reach Trilogy) is a treasure trove of Lovecraftian horror and madness, written for modern-day readers. It’s written as the journal of the Biologist, a member of the twelfth expedition into “Area X”. This is an isolated beach and the land around it, cut off from civilization by a mysterious border. The Southern Reach is the governmental agency tasked with figuring out what Area X is, and they haven’t had much luck. Some expedition members go mad and kill each other. Some expeditions go mad and kill themselves. Others mysteriously appear at their homes after being gone for months, seem distant and empty, and then die of cancer months later. Advanced technology seems to degrade quickly when it works at all, so the expeditions take only simple machines with them. Each expedition uses different protocols, trying to figure out what might make a difference at the heart of the enigma. Expedition twelve is all-female, and the members’ individual identities are stripped away, leaving them knowing each other only by their job titles. The Psychologist, who leads the expedition, has put each person through rigorous questioning and mental preparation, but it’s entirely unknown whether this will help at all.

The Biologist’s tone is somewhat clinical, which might put off some readers. I found it worked to reinforce the strangeness of the setting and events. It takes very little time for the unusual, maddening effects of Area X to put in an appearance, so you don’t have to wait for long. There’s a lighthouse that seems significant, and a strange tunnel with bizarre writing lining its walls:

“… There shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy that shall bloom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age …”

The tone of Annihilation is very internal, so it’s hard to see how this is set to become a movie next year. Most of what happens is nested within the experiences of the Biologist, and her take on it is integral to what happens and how.

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.

There are strange creatures that inhabit Area X, and accounts of past expeditions may not have been entirely correct in how they were portrayed to the characters during their training. Despite the odd advanced decay of everything left behind to find, there are some secrets that haven’t been lost to madness and decomposition.

I absolutely loved Annihilation. It’s a fantastic exploration of the madness present in both internal and external landscape, and it’s a Lovecraftian horror built to appeal to modern readers.

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Review: “Archangel’s Heart,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Vivid and fascinating
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Heart (A Guild Hunter Novel)–Book 9–continues the over-arching plot of the series rather than tackling a new romantic pairing. I like the fact that the series has enough plot going on to be able to do this. And the fact that Elena and Raphael’s romance has been consummated in no way prevents them from acting as excellent main characters with plenty of ongoing chemistry. Not all erotic romance series can boast the same. The ongoing plot and worldbuilding are complex enough that you should make sure you’ve read the series so far, but you don’t have to worry about being lost if it’s been a few months since you read book 8. (Hell, I ended up reading the two novels out of order and I’m keeping up pretty well.) In this volume Lijuan’s territory is starting to go to Hell in her absence. Vampiric bloodlust is cropping up, resulting in entire wiped-out villages of people. An unaligned group of isolated angels called the Luminata calls the Cadre of archangels and Ancients together to decide whether it’s time to divide Lijuan’s territory between the remaining Cadre members, and if so, how. (This is apparently pretty much the only function of the Luminata in the outside world–otherwise they seek individual enlightenment.) However, it doesn’t take long for Elena to realize that something weird is up with their leader, Gian, and it might be connected to her own mysterious family background.

We get to see all of the Cadre (except Lijuan) in one place, and it’s fairly fascinating. There’s plenty of angelic politicking going on. The big problem, of course, is that no one really knows how ‘alive’ Lijuan might or might not be, or whether she’s going into Sleep, or simply regaining her power from being torn apart by Raphael before she shows her face again. She displayed such immense power during the war that no one wants to risk pissing her off by entering her territory, yet without archangelic oversight the vampires will continue to fall into bloodlust. There’s little to indicate the best course of action.

Elena’s family plot becomes quite interesting. The Lumia (the home of the Luminati) is in Morocco, where Elena’s grandmother came from. Elena visits a nearby village only to find it strangely free of vampires and angels, and the mortals terrified of angels. No one wants to talk to her about anything, but it’s obvious that some of them find her strange coloration, with her white hair, familiar. She wants to ask Gian about the mystery, but can’t shake the feeling that he’s lying to her and could be dangerous. In fact, he’s hardly the only member of the brotherhood who raises her hackles.

As usual Nalini Singh’s work is vivid, lush, and enticing. The characters have depth and chemistry, including friendships and more tenuous ties, not just the romantic. The landscapes are vividly drawn and enjoyable, while the plot intrigues and captures the imagination.

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Review: “Archangel’s Enigma,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Wild characters, plenty of plot progression, lush landscape
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Archangel’s Enigma (A Guild Hunter Novel)–Book 8–delves into the enigma that is Naasir, one of archangel Raphael’s seven closest friends and colleagues. Most people believe him to be some odd sort of vampire, but those who know him best realize he’s something more. Most of them don’t know just how unusual he really is, a half-wild creature with animalistic instincts. He’s about six hundred years old and having seen some of his friends take mates now wants one of his own. But he knows he needs another wild creature who can take him on his own terms. Unfortunately, he’ll have to delay his hunt while he accompanies a young angelic scholar on a vitally important mission (she couldn’t possibly be his mate, because she’s taken a vow of celibacy, and no mate of his would have ever done something so silly). Lijuan, the Archangel of Death, is believed to be looking for the Sleeping place of the Ancient Alexander so she can slay him while he’s vulnerable. Andromeda, who has studied Alexander extensively, is believed to be the best hope of finding this place. It’s Naasir’s job to protect her while they both try to find it. Unfortunately, Lijuan is one step ahead of them–she has Andi kidnapped before their journey even begins.

Naasir and Andromeda may occupy the main plotline, but we still get to peek in on our old friends and the overarching plotline. Lijuan’s ongoing devolution is bloodily explored, as is Illium’s too-soon possible ascension to archangel status. There’s a legendary Grimoire to be found, and a blood vow Andi’s parents made on her behalf to be overcome. Soon she’s to go to her grandfather Charisemnon’s court and serve there for 500 years. He’s an evil, horrifying power who enjoys torture and death. If she doesn’t participate, she’ll become a victim herself. And she can’t possible let him find out about her growing feelings for Naasir, so she’ll be torn away from her maybe-mate for those 500 years.

Both Naasir and Andi are great characters. Each has unexpected layers to them. Naasir has learned to wear a skin of civility when needed, but wants a mate who can match and accept his inner wildness. Andi is a devoted scholar, but she also loves to wield a blade and does so with far more skill than Naasir could expect. Her own wild inner nature may well be a match to his own.

The landscapes they travel are lush and vivid. We get to explore from the skies of New York to the angelic Refuge, Africa, and beyond. As always with Singh’s writing it’s easy to visualize the setting and the people. Also, while much of the Guild Hunter series follows the standard erotic romance series trope in which each book covers a new pair of characters within the same setting, Singh’s books build on a great ongoing plot as well as a web of friendships and relationships between all of the characters. It helps to keep things interesting, building the new while remaining grounded in the old.

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Review: “Archangel’s Shadows,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Beautiful story
Cons: A bit of a sexual conundrum
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Archangel’s Shadows (A Guild Hunter Novel, Book 7) delves into the erotically charged, headstrong relationship between Guild Hunter Ashwini and vampire Janvier. They’ve been alternately flirting with and hating each other for several years now, and while Janvier is certain she’s the one for him, she believes she carries a secret that means they can never be together. For the moment, however, they’re stuck with each other. Mysterious bodies have started showing up–first animals, now a human, as dessicated husks of their former selves. Meanwhile, a new drug targeted at rich vampires with nothing better to do threatens to destabilize the precious post-war peace of New York. Ash and Janvier are tasked with solving the first of these problems, and find themselves inevitably bumping up against the second. They need to take care of things quickly, before any of the other archangels see them as weak and easy to conquer.

As usual, Singh brings a beautiful world to life. Make sure you’re already familiar with it, because there’s a lot going on. Fans of the series will finally get to see these two together, while also keeping up with Elena and Raphael as Raphael’s enormously powerful, and alien, mother comes to visit. We get to find out more about the mysterious Legion. I particularly like the characters of Ash and Janvier; they’re both snarky, strong, and deadly. They work very well together despite their differences. They make natural partners which is fun to watch, and their chemistry is outstanding.

There’s just one problem. In the wake of the recent #metoo campaign, I find myself much more aware of instances of sexual harassment, pressure, and so on, in which one party doesn’t respect the other’s boundaries. And the truth is, Janvier pressures Ashwini in all sorts of ways that for most people would be totally unacceptable. It works for me in this book, because the characters have so much past history, ongoing flirtation on both sides, and deeper caring for each other:

…when they’d spoken so many times, trusted one another so deeply.

It also makes a huge difference to me that when the ultimate seduction occurs, she’s the one who instigates it. As much as he pushes her boundaries, he also in a strange way respects them. I also understand that some readers will want the fantasy of having to be pushed past their own boundaries.

That said, it’s a fine line, and I’m sure there will be readers on both sides of it. You know your own tolerances, so take this into account when you decide whether you want to read this book or not.

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Review: “Archangel’s Viper,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Interesting plot and characters
Cons: A little too much sniping
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Viper (A Guild Hunter Novel) is not a good place to jump into the series; make sure you’ve read other Guild Hunter books first. It’s best to have some background on both of these characters and their unique places in the ongoing plots. That said, Singh includes enough detail that even if it’s been a little while since you’ve read other books you should be able to make your way through this one without a problem.

In the latest installment of the Guild Hunter books (book 10) we get to finally find out more about Venom, a rather unique vampire, and Holly, who is maybe/sorta a vampire and unique in her own right. No one really knows what she is right now so they’re protecting her while keeping a wary eye on her. And with good reason–there’s something powerful and maddening growing inside of her and she doesn’t know how to control it yet. When someone tries to kidnap Holly and the characters learn there’s a $5 million bounty on her, it becomes much more urgent that they find out what’s going on with her.

Romance books in which the leads snipe at each other constantly as they fall in love are not my favorite kind. Partly I find it harder to buy into. Partly the tone just grates on me. Maybe, having been through a recent divorce myself, I just get depressed when I see the negative aspects of relationships right now. That said, Nalini Singh is one of the few authors who can pull it off without tuning me out.

I have to reiterate that Singh’s depiction of a world filled with vampires and angels is quite unique. It isn’t just our world with a little twist–the power structures and people’s lives have some serious differences from the world we’re used to. Angels and vamps aren’t something that just showed up; they’ve been around forever. Angels create vampires to serve them, and angels can go quite power-mad. The Guild Hunters exist to keep vampires in check, although the recent close alliance between New York’s archangel and its Guild chapter is new. It’s a unique ecosystem that I love to explore. I missed a couple of books before this one and I’ll have to go back and catch up, because I’ve loved this series since the very beginning.

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Short Take: “The Unremembered Girl,” Eliza Maxwell

Pros: Raw, beautiful, vivid
Cons: Depressing & painful
Rating: 5 out of 5

Eliza Maxwell’s The Unremembered Girl sees a poor rural family take in a mysterious ‘stray’ who knows herself simply as ‘Girl’. She’s given the name Eve, and she and Henry develop an obsessive bond. She’s indelibly broken, however, and no matter what Henry does to help her, things just go further and further downhill. To further confound things, strange noises can be heard coming from a shack in the swamp that should be deserted. Henry isn’t sure what’s going on, but it can’t be good–and he can’t shake the feeling that it has something to do with Eve.

A warning: this book is incredibly painful and depressing, with a feeling of doom that pervades much of the narrative. Make sure you’re up to reading it. That said, it’s also fiercely beautiful. The visuals are vivid and intense, and the characters come to life on the page. There’s plenty of danger woven in, especially as things get intense toward the end. You’ll find interesting plot twists and surprising consequences. It’s dark enough that I’m not sure I’m happy I read it exactly, but it is an incredibly well-written book.

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Review: “The Scattered and the Dead Box Set,” L.T. Vargus

Pros: Moves beyond the post-apocalyptic basics
Cons: A bit, well, scattered
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Scattered and the Dead Series: The First Four Books, by L.T. Vargus, gives us a plague-stricken world thrown into the dark ages by a nuclear response to the fast-moving biological threat. The population has been vastly depleted, and even years afterward civilization is in tatters. The narrative follows a variety of characters across a spectrum of time periods before and after the nuclear strike. It’s a bit confusing to go back and forth like that all over the place, but I think ultimately it works.

Sometimes there’s a bit of sameness to the character voices; several of the characters are unusually aware of their own physicality and physical actions/reactions. It’s a bit weird. The characters have some nice depth, though, and sometimes surprise the reader. Current post-apocalyptic fiction still often focuses so intensely on the basics–survivalism, largely–that it’s nice to find a book that develops the depth of plot and character necessary in fiction in general. Most sub-genres follow this pattern, starting out as sketches and basics and then gradually developing into fully-fledged fiction with all of the necessary elements for a good story. Unlike some of the recent books I’ve read, Vargus’s The Scattered and the Dead makes that transition.

I like some of the details. There’s a prepper whose preparations come to naught because he gets hit by the plague, and given the odds, that should happen more often than not. It’s been a bit weird to read post-apocalyptic after post-apocalyptic in which both the prepper and all of his family members mysteriously turn out to be immune; after a while it beggars belief. Another nice detail: there may be some serious perverts in here, but at least it doesn’t depict every male as a rampant rapist and every female as a would-be victim.

Vargus’s work is a bit rough around the edges, but I like the story and characters. If you like the genre it’s worth giving this series a read.

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Short Take: “The Halcyon Fairy Book,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: hilarious, fascinating look at fairy tales
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s The Halcyon Fairy Book mostly consists of reprintings of a handful of fairy tales together with Kingfisher’s biting, humorous, insightful commentary on the same. Fairy tales are known for taking bizarre left turns and leaps of logic, not to mention having ridiculous plots and characters. Kingfisher both appreciates them for what they are and skewers them at the same time. She clearly pokes fun from a place of love, and it shows. I’d gotten so used to the weird facts of fairy tales that I’m not sure I really approach them critically any more, and it’s nice to be reminded of how to apply modern thought to fairy tales without losing an appreciation for them.

Kingfisher also includes a few of her own fairy tales, and they’re wonderful. She clearly puts to use some of her insight in order to create tales that retain that fairy tale feel yet incorporate insights that give them new and fascinating ground to cover. In particular I love her characters, human and not. They possess a great deal more depth and sense than typical fairy tale characters while remaining magical and weird.

I love all of Kingfisher’s work so far and highly recommend reading whatever you can get your hands on!

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