This is a mesmerizing, tense, unsettling science fiction psychology thriller about the 12th expedition into an area called Area X. Area X is apparently a part of a sea-coast that has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades; most of what humans had built there has decayed back into nature. It is being investigated by a clandestine government agency called the Southern Reach. (Who really trusts what such an agency might say or do?)

The first expedition came back and said everything in Area X was fine. The second ended in mass suicide, the third in a bloody gun battle as the members killed each other. The members of the seventh returned mysteriously over 18 months, but all died of cancer within weeks of returning.

The main character is a biologist, the wife of a medic in the seventh expedition. The whole book is told in first person from her POV. All members of the 12th expedition are women: a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist who is the oldest and the leader of the expedition.

The book isn’t clear about what the Border is that has cut off Area X, although there’s a suggestion that things aren’t what they seem (the Border is something that causes hallucinations; that’s why everyone who crosses it has to be hypnotized to remain calm). The Border is also moving out into the land surrounding Area X. Sounds like enough to motivate Southern Reach’s “good” side, right?

It comes out that the psychologist has planted hypnotic orders in all the expedition members. Some orders force them to see Area X in certain ways. So our perceptions of Area X are themselves suspect.

For example, they discover a structure the narrator insists on calling a tower although only the top floor or two appear above ground with the rest descending underground. Together, the surveyor and the narrator descend into the Tower, and it becomes clear that the narrator sees things that the surveyor doesn’t.

(At the end of the story, the narrator discovers that one order implanted in each of them is to suicide. Did the 2nd expedition kill itself on command?)

They find things that previous expeditions had reported, like a mysterious empty lighthouse on the shore of the sea. They find the tower I mentioned earlier, where something mysterious and deadly produces living words (made of an unknown biological life form) that spirals up along the walls inside the tower. The words include:

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms”

that continues on endlessly in that vein. Eventually the biologist reconstructs additional words from a coral-like frieze on the wall beneath the living words:

“Why should I rest when wickedness exists in the world … God’s love shines on anyone who understands the limits of endurance, and allows forgiveness … Chosen for the service of a higher power.”

She finds (or hears) similar words coming from creatures and plants in Area X. As if the life or living reality in Area X is endlessly talking to itself.

Did the surveyor and the biologist both see the words? Only the biologist sees that the Tower seems to be breathing, its walls moving in and out.

Later, the anthropologist’s body is found down in the tower, her intestines ripped out and her body covered with a green glowing fungus. She had gone there seeking the source of the mysterious words. So apparently she could see the words.

As things go on, the psychologist disappears and the surveyor decides that the expedition’s over: “Best thing we can now is return to the border and await extraction.” The biologist leaves her behind, hiking alone to the lighthouse which appears to have been the central interest of many of the previous expeditions.

In the lighthouse, she finds a room filled with journals from the previous expeditions, containing information that didn’t make it out of Area X. The journals are just dumped into the room from a trapdoor in the ceiling, forming a messy, damp heap. Was someone hiding them? The bottom of the heap is moldy and rotting. It appears that at least some of the information dumped there is known by the Southern Reach agency.

Clearly, a lot more expeditions have gone into Area X than just 12, possibly for as many years as Area X has existed. Or even longer! (Perhaps time travel is also occurring?)

She also finds the psychologist, sitting upright at the base of the tower with numerous broken bones. They psychologist says she lept from the top when she thought something terrifying was rushing towards her. (Is she also under some hypnotic compulsion she doesn’t know about? Or was she attacked by something from Area X?)

She is also infected with the glowing fungus. The narrator talks with the psychologist, receiving some suggestive (but not necessarily reliable) answers, then the psychologist dies, asking to be left there, as the fungus continues to spread.

The narrator reads some of the journals, (including those of her deceased husband) but they don’t necessarily help clarify anything.

She then returns to the camp, where the surveyor shoots and hits her twice, demanding to know what she did with the psychologist and wondering aloud if the narrator is human anymore. That’s a good question, because the narrator shoots the surveyor when “the brightness” growing within her enables her to sense where the surveyor is crawling towards her through the high reeds of the swamp lying between the camp and the lighthouse.

When the narrator finds and reads the surveyor’s journal, the journal is blank. The surveyor has been faking her hours of journal-writing sessions. Except for a single sentence that suggests that the surveyor “took care of” the psychologist.

By the end of the story, the biologist is alive, partially taken over by the fungus. “Partially” only because the fungus has had to pause while healing her two bullet wounds. (Seems like this fungus has some benefits!) Then she decides not to return to the Southern Reach agency, but to leave the camp and head north, the direction that she thinks her husband may have taken when he somehow walked out of Area X and returned back home.

Vandermeer’s style is crisp, with a nice awareness of rhythm and the affect of rhythm on building mood and emotion. The characterizations of people; the narrators’ thoughts, feelings and motivations; “reality(ies)” of Area X itself are crystal-clear. Everything is there. But despite the clarity, everything is still shrouded in mystery. The meanings are absent, vague, conflicting, questionable, unreliable. That helps maintain a nice tension throughout the story.

When they arrived in Area X, the narrator finds out that the linguist who started the expedition with them outside of Area X didn’t come in with them:

“‘She had second thoughts,’ the psychologist told us, meeting our questions with a firm gaze. ‘She decided to stay behind.’”

Is this a suggestion that we should be very suspicious of the language we’re reading? (Of language itself?) There are points where the narrator talks about what happened in her life before the expedition: her various biological researches, her marriage, her husband’s death. But – given the embedded hypnotic commands and the psychologist’s suggestion that Southern Reach may have implanted false memories – how much of that can we trust?

The narrator’s name is never used (as far as I recall) and the narrator never uses the other expedition members’ names. She refers to them by their specialties. Yet it doesn’t feel distancing, like I’d have expected. It feels right because it’s the way the narrator is: kind of distant, apart from the others. One of the narrator’s preferences even from before the expedition is to be alone, studying nature, rather than being around or interacting with people. Even her husband only calls her “Ghost bird”. Is she a ghost, not really there? A bird always flying away? Both?

This book intrigues me enough to want to read it again. It seems to connect with one of the themes Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood stories: how much “reality” is determined by our individual thoughts, feelings, beliefs. In the Mythago Wood mythos, what appear as archetypes in the mind – or even concentrated, willed thoughts – take on physical reality as mythagos with a life of their own that continues on and changes subtly from appearance to appearance, ringing endless variations on the archetype.

Similarly, how much is “real” (in Area X outside the characters) and how much is “real” (inside their possibly warped perceptions and memories) in Area X? Are they even IN Area X, or are they really just handcuffed to the chairs they were seated in before departure? (The narrator notices handcuffs on the arms of the metal chairs they waited in before the psychologist hypnotized them to cross the Border.)

I’m looking forward to the two final volumes; the second, Authority, is due in May 2014 and the third, Acceptance, in September 2014. If they turn out as well as this one, I may have a new trilogy to add to my collection!

The story begins quite promisingly: A small town in the Midwest, on a hot summer day, when suddenly five seemingly-normal people in town commit senseless bloody murders (some singular, some multiple, all but one murder-suicides). Only one of the murderers survives; she’s locked up in an insane asylum.

The story is told through the POVs of a couple of teenagers (not the popular ones) in town, from different classes of society, and seems to be doing a good job of exploring what the various teens are feeling and thinking in reaction to the murders. Sounds like a story that’s going somewhere, with something to say.

Oh, and the town was built on the site of a town of the same name that was burnt to the ground and all 1100+ people in it were killed. That (and maybe the general tone) must have been what one of the advance reviewers meant when he likened it to Stephen King.

Then suddenly the town is surrounded by the US military, all communication with the outside world cutoff, they’re fed some kind of story about something toxic and/or infectious nearby that leaked, etc. Oh, and the mayor’s specifically been handed absolute power – “Do anything you want,” says the Army colonel in charge of the quarantine. And the mayor’s named the high school football team (a bunch of drunken hooligans) as volunteer deputies who’ll be patrolling the town (before this, they’ve been built up as real threats to gang rape one of the POV characters) … Oh, and there’s more than traces of some fundamentalist religious crazies in there, too.

And the story proceeds to wander away from its originality into cliched formula …

I don’t usually give up on a book once I start reading it. I might decide not to read it after I’ve checked it out of the library, but once I start reading, I usually finish. But, sorry, I got to page 122 (hard back library edition), and quit.

I wish the author had written the story she had going before she lost her way.

This is a fun steampunk-cum-paranormal-cum-Holmesian adventure. It has violence (both physical and magical), powerful wizards fighting for and against Britain (which is ruled by a powerful spirit named Brittania, currently incarnated as the young Queen Victoria), dragons (mostly sleeping), conspiracies and invasions from other countries (such as Germany) trying to take over Britain, and strange non-human humanoids called Shields whose function is to protect wizards (both physically and magically).

The book won’t win prizes for originality. The Holmesian character is a super-genius who operates by science and the science of deduction and uses a suspiciously-named chemical stimulant when he needs a boost. He’s one of a class of people whose name is suspiciously-like that of the mentats in Frank Herbert’s Dune books. The main character is a beautiful, powerful female wizard who works as an agent for the British government but draws her power from dark magic (Death); her Shield is a man-like humanoid who is quick and deadly with a hint of scaly skin; he’s a kind of being called a “Nagah”. Two dragons are involved: the lesser one is a metal dragon who is the ruler and power source behind the steampunk industry section of London. The greater one is asleep deep beneath the British Isles and so gigantic that if it should wake up, all of the British Isles would be destroyed.

It all comes together with a satisfying end.

Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

The three books are:

The first is my very favorite zombie story. I read it about 2 years ago, when it was a “Best For Young Adults” selection.

This year, I found the other two at my local library and snapped them up.

Some writers can write a great book in an imagined world, then prove unable to write another great book set in that same world. Ryan isn’t one of those writers. She has three great books set in her post-zombie apocalypse world.

The three books are loosely connected, with the main character of The Forest of Hands and Teeth being the adopted mother of the main character of The Dead-Tossed Waves. The main character of The Dark and Hollow Places is the sister of another of the main characters in Dead-Tossed Waves.

What I like most about her books is that they’re not focused on the blood and gore of fighting zombies. She’s writing about the surviving humans and the effects the zombies and survival has on them, their society and their religious beliefs.

Common thread: catastrophic change (the Return) and how people respond

Zombies are something good

The Soulers are religious people who’ve decided that zombies (being essentially immortal) are the immortality that some religions believe is the reward given to good/righteous believers. A Souler voluntarily agrees to be bitten by a zombie so they can return in their own immortal body. The other Soulers then smash and remove the returnee’s lower jaw and pull their teeth so they can’t bite or infect anyone else, and keep them chained up as part of the family, so to speak.

This touches on a repeated question throughout all the stories: when someone becomes a zombie, is the original personality/soul still there, or is it gone and the zombie body is just a biological machine? No one really answers this question, although one of the main characters (Catcher) in the two later books hints a bit toward an answer. Catcher was bitten, but turns out to be immune; his immune system is able to hold the infection in check. Those in the story who are familiar with immunes say that whenever he finally dies, he’ll come back as a zombie. But none can say if he’ll still be in the zombie body or not.

Zombies are something evil to be destroyed whenever possible, or avoided

This is expressed in the general attitude of the survivors, and particularly expressed in all three books. In The Forest of Teeth and Hands, the people who’ve been protecting the village from the surrounding zombies have formed an almost-religious community with rigid rules intended to protect the village. In The Dead-Tossed Waves, the larger village has nothing particularly religious about it, but has rigid rules intended to protect the village. In The Dark and Hollow Places, a non-religious military dictatorship (the Protectorate and its Recruiters army) protects the larger coastal village (and the even larger Dark City). In all three cases, the rules result in the deaths of uninfected citizens.

The responses of the village sisterhood, the Soulers and the Protectorate to the wrenching change caused by the Return of the dead as zombies boil down to basically the same: hard-hearted, hopeless, resistance.

The positive response

At the end of The Dark and Hollow Places, the response is, “Zombies are a part of the world as it is, but we don’t need to give up living to deal with it.” It ends with hope as the main characters and the downtrodden slaves of the powerful escape the final zombie horde by flying away in hot air balloons. Then they go to sea in an old sailing vessel, setting out to look for other pockets of survivors, with the hope of establishing a sea-born society safe from the zombies.

Weakness

She’s still writing for young adults, so sometimes her characters spend a bit too much time moping around about the whole “He loves me, he loves me not, should I love him, do I love him” et al. The two later books have more of that problem than the first. But unlike Charles de Lint, I never felt like anything kept me from connecting with the characters and immersing myself in the stories.

Recommendation

Read and reread them all!

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