I don't always read speculative fiction, but when I do... Okay, that's a wicked lame start, but seriously, I feel like I need to qualify my review. I'm not much for "weird" fiction -- I can be very impatient and/or lazy when it comes to elaborate world-building or well, weirdness -- but now and then I enjoy something, well, odd.
I've long been a VanderMeer fan because his novels have plenty of oddity along with some delicious narrative description and fabulously unforgettable characters. (His Veniss Underground -- a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth -- is a desert island pick of mine.
In this slender, gripping novel -- the first of a trilogy (sorry!) -- VanderMeer creates a world like ours with one outstanding difference: thirty years ago, some event literally reshaped part of the country, and Area X (as the place is now known) is a wild, "pristine" uninhabited preserve closed off by the government. Mostly forgotten by the public, Area X is an unsolved mystery still as there has been no successful expedition into the space: one expedition had all its members kill themselves; another where they murdered each other. The most recent one had members return without notice only to die of aggressive cancers.
Our narrator is a biologist who is part of the twelfth expedition. The novel is her diary from the expedition, and in it she recounts what she knows of Area X. From the first handful of pages, we're plunged into a creepy world where even the other expedition members can't be trusted and our guide, the biologist, carefully parses out details as she sees fit.
As with his other books, VanderMeer's imaginative and poetic narrative style is seen here, too; despite the biologist's dry and pragmatic approach to her job, the events she witnesses and the landscape around her defy neat prose, and there are passages that feel nearly feverish, they're so wild and linguistically fancy. There's delicious tension, plenty of creepiness, and a brisk plot that has one racing to find out what is next.
I adored this novel and read it one night -- a rarity for me since getting pregnant! -- and I immediately got -- and inhaled -- the second book, Authority. (Review coming soon.) I'm on tenterhooks for the final book, Acceptance, which doesn't come out until September.
The publisher has the first chapter posted online for those who are curious; if you like survivalist stories, strange happenings, government conspiracies, and movies like Prometheus or shows likeLost, consider giving this one a read.