Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux on April 25, 2017
my rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Goodreads avg: 3.91 (as of 2018-05-26)
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In a ruined, nameless city of the future, a woman named Rachel, who makes her living as a scavenger, finds a creature she names “Borne” entangled in the fur of Mord, a gigantic, despotic bear. Mord once prowled the corridors of the biotech organization known as the Company, which lies at the outskirts of the city, until he was experimented on, grew large, learned to fly and broke free. Driven insane by his torture at the Company, Mord terrorizes the city even as he provides sustenance for scavengers like Rachel.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all—just a green lump that might be a Company discard. The Company, although severely damaged, is rumoured to still make creatures and send them to distant places that have not yet suffered Collapse.
Borne somehow reminds Rachel of the island nation of her birth, now long lost to rising seas. She feels an attachment she resents; attachments are traps, and in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet when she takes Borne to her subterranean sanctuary, the Balcony Cliffs, Rachel convinces her lover, Wick, not to render Borne down to raw genetic material for the drugs he sells—she cannot break that bond.
Wick is a special kind of supplier, because the drug dealers in the city don’t sell the usual things. They sell tiny creatures that can be swallowed or stuck in the ear, and that release powerful memories of other people’s happier times or pull out forgotten memories from the user’s own mind—or just produce beautiful visions that provide escape from the barren, craterous landscapes of the city.
Against his better judgment, out of affection for Rachel or perhaps some other impulse, Wick respects her decision. Rachel, meanwhile, despite her loyalty to Wick, knows he has kept secrets from her. Searching his apartment, she finds a burnt, unreadable journal titled “Mord,” a cryptic reference to the Magician (a rival drug dealer) and evidence that Wick has planned the layout of the Balcony Cliffs to match the blueprint of the Company building. What is he hiding? Why won’t he tell her about what happened when he worked for the Company?
I had started reading Borne for the Reddit /r/books book club. I had been intending to read it anyway, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I first read VanderMeer when I picked up Annihilation in January, and then Authority in March, and I really enjoyed his writing style. I was impressed by how he was able to pull readers into such bizarre environments and weave such strange tales.
The first half of the book went by pretty quickly for me. There wasn’t much of an introduction to the world itself and as a reader you found yourself thrust into it pretty quickly. It’s a confusing environment — decimated city, giant flying bear, you get the idea — and it’s difficult to orient yourself, but VanderMeer does a pretty good job of immersing you within it and revealing the context slowly.
The pacing was a bit off and I sort of lost interest in the second half of the book, which caused me to finish it a lot slower than I had intended. I became a bit too confused and it was hard to be invested in the story when I didn’t understand what was going on. I really didn’t understand the cause and effect of certain events, so I spent more time trying to figure out what had happened than I spent reacting to them emotionally.
The end pulled things together pretty well, but I had already been lost for long enough that it didn’t redeem things for me. I was disappointed because it didn’t really feel comparable to the first two thirds of the Southern Reach trilogy to me, but I think I also wasn’t in the mindspace to read this kind of book right now, so take that with a grain of salt.
I definitely recommend this for other lovers of VanderMeer and sci-fi lovers in general, but it just didn’t do it for me this time around.
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(Blurb and cover courtesy of Goodreads.)