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Dystopian trilogy's second volume brings more questions than answers

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Earlier this year, Florida-based author Jeff VanderMeer released Annihilation, a surreal sci-fi/horror tale that followed an all-female expedition into a lush, mysterious zone called Area X, a space cut off from the rest of the continent for three decades following an "Event" that left the area to be reclaimed by nature.

This worthy followup, Book 2 of the Southern Reach trilogy, picks up shortly after the first book left off, but has a completely different feel to it. Where Annihilation was written in the style of a found journal, Authority switches to a third-person narrative, following a brand-new protagonist and taking place almost completely outside of Area X's ominous invisible border.

The biggest difference, though, is a switch in the overall tone. While Annihilation was fairly fast-paced and heavy on horror, Authority is more of a slow-burning conspiracy thriller.

John Rodriguez, who prefers to go by the name "Control," is hired -- by his mother -- as the new director of the Southern Reach, a government agency in charge of studying Area X. He's brought in after the previous director went missing during the 12th expedition into the area -- the one chronicled in Book 1.

Surprisingly (especially for those who read Annihilation), three of the four members of the 12th expedition have returned, each being found in a different place. Like those who returned from previous missions, none has any recollection of how she got there.

But while the anthropologist and surveyor (each member of the expedition was only known by her job title) return to locations that held importance in their pre-mission lives, the biologist -- and narrator of the first book -- is discovered in an overgrown lot, staring at a brick wall.

The survivors are placed into custody in the Southern Reach and through a series of interrogations with the biologist, Control tries to learn what happened. Unfortunately, the biologist has little to say, and is a shell of the character from the first book.

Control also begins to run into trouble with his co-workers, particularly Grace, the assistant director, Whitby, a jack-of-all-trades who is the group's longest-serving employee, and the Voice, whom he must report to regularly by phone.

Soon he is questioning his family history, the Southern Reach's real purpose, and the true nature of Area X and its border.

Oddly, he is the only one comfortable using words like "alien" or "extraterrestrial" to describe the anomalies.

VanderMeer answers some of the mysteries of Annihilation, and presents new ones as well, while taking several twists and turns -- some are predictable, while others are genuinely shocking.

But while the first book could have worked as a stand-alone, Authority definitely feels like a middle chapter, building to an inevitable cliff-hanger to set up Acceptance, which will complete the trilogy this fall.

 

Alan MacKenzie is a Winnipeg-based writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 G8

History

Updated on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 8:55 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting, adds link to Annihilation review.

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