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....

Little is known of Area X.

It appeared with little warning, an area of pristine seaside vegetation, and every year it grows a little more. Every year, a group of scientists and professionals volunteer to explore Area X, and every year the group meets a grim fate—by suicide, by shootouts, by other inexplicable forces of violence. Even the explorers who return from Area X alive are irrevocably changed; hollow shells of the people they used to be.

The 12th expedition to Area X hopes for better. An entirely female team—comprising a psychologist, a linguist, an anthropologist and a biologist—pass through the mysterious border and enter the wilderness. Like other crews before them, they’re allowed no technology that might connect them to the outside world; their equipment is fully analog, with no digital tools. Even their cache of guns are antique, manual things.

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What the 12th expedition finds in the wilderness is utterly unexpected, alien, strange: a tunnel (or tower, depending on perspective) burrows deep within the earth, bearing a message writ in crawling vines for the explorers.

Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner….

Like much of the author’s work, Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel is a bonafide trip. The first book in a planned trilogy, Annihilation is a quick, haunting read that, somehow, simultaneously manages to be a supernatural horror novel, psychological thriller and a literary treat. Literary, in the book’s beautiful descriptive turns of phrase, melancholic prose and expertly unreliable narration. Psychological, as its unnamed narrator and protagonist (known simply as “the biologist”) unfurls slowly under the stress of this impossible place, and after being exposed to Area X’s particular new biology. And, finally, supernatural—in that there is a living, breathing tower belowground, spelling out a message with vines, slowly advancing and infecting the world around it.

Easily, the strongest parts of Annihilation lie with its vivid writing style and characterization. The two are intrinsically connected, as the biologist narrates this tale of madness and sadness through her journal entries. More so than the fear or the discoveries that the biologist makes—the hypnotic suggestions to which she and her teammates are unwilling subjects, the lighthouse and its secrets, the exact nature and age of Area X—it is the insular, quieter self-discoveries that propel Annihilation. The biologist, from the outset, seems a peculiarly detached sort of person, and as her narrative progresses, we learn the extent of her detachment. We learn about her marriage, her husband’s ultimate fate, her borderline sociopathic and dissociative tendencies. Or is she simply under the spell of hypnosis, or infection? Who knows? The questions are the most irresistible parts of Annihilation; the gradual internal struggle (or lack thereof) that the biologist faces as she comes to grips with her past and her future.

The answers, unfortunately, are not nearly so important or satisfying. While I loved the psychological exercise of this book, and while I cannot find any fault in VanderMeer’s electric writing style, I was disappointed with the actual supernatural core of this novel (and, I assume, the trilogy). The creeping, inexplicable vines in the jungle story is a fairly familiar trope, and one most memorably explored in Scott Smith’s The Ruins. But whereas the carnivorous, ancient vines of The Ruins are effectively terrifying and explicable, the fuzziness of the Crawler and Area X in Annihilation remain undefined, tangential and ineffective. Simple answers aren’t always necessary or desirable, but the lack of definition in Annihilation feels incomplete and oddly un-scary, and hardly convincing fodder for future novels in a planned series. Moreover, the reliance on hypnosis as a legitimate catalyst for the plot is a bizarrely dated choice. (Along those lines, I’m thinking of the screams of “Annihilation! Annihilation!” part of the book. While effective and supercreepy when you find out exactly what the significance of the title is, it unfortunately also put me in the mind of the Daleks’ “Exterminate!” war cry in a not-so-effective manner.)

Mine is probably an unpopular opinion, but as a work of speculative fiction, of horror? I’m not convinced that Annihilation succeeds. As a character study in the descent into madness, though? Annihilation is easily worth the price of admission.

In Book Smugglerish, a torn 6.5 crawling jungle vines out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.