Book Review: Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer

This week, I decided to review one of my Sci-fi Month reads that hadn’t originally been scheduled for a review. It seemed a shame to let Jeff VanderMeer’s post-apocalyptic cave of wonders Borne slip through the net though!

This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

Where to even begin with Borne?

Rachel scavenges in the ruins of a city ruled over by a giant, murderous, flying bear named Mord, hoping to find useful supplies for her lover Wick to cook up into drugs in his abandoned swimming pool. These supplies come in the form of bizarre biotech, running rampant after being unleashed by the Company, who also created Mord.

One day, while scavenging for scraps tangled in the sleeping Mord’s fur, Rachel uncovers a bizarre, plant-like creature which she names Borne. She takes Borne back to the warren of tunnels and rooms she shares with Wick, who is wary of this unknown piece of biotech. He is all for rendering Borne down to make more biotech of his own, but Rachel won’t hear of it, and adopts the creature as her own.

If this sounds like an off-the-wall setup, it’s nothing compared to some of the ideas going on elsewhere. To reveal any more of the creatures VanderMeer has populated this vivid world with would be a shame, as his constantly whirring imagination, once unleashed, results in a veritable menagerie of oddities. It is a genuine joy to have a new creature introduced, its place in the improvised ecosystem of the city only to be guessed at.

The city itself is more sketched in, as is “The Company,” which is never otherwise named, nor is any reason for its existence or its strange experiments really given. Far from feeling like there’s information about either missing, this lends both a mythic quality, as if the events taking place could be some sort of fable or dream. It’s Alice in Wonderland, but for the modern age, on very strong drugs.

“In the city, the line between nightmare and reality was fluid, just as the context of the words killer and death had shifted over time. Perhaps Mord was responsible. Perhaps we all were.”

Borne, page 28

What certainly doesn’t lack for detail is Rachel’s find, the titular Borne. VanderMeer lavishes attention on the pseudopod waving entity, his rapid physical development on a par with his accelerated learning as he absorbs information from the world around him. Borne loves word play, rolling words around as if tasting them, and finding ways to use them that sound like nonsense but have a charming underlying logic to them. His silliness belies his potential for other, more dangerous habits, but he is definitely equal parts weird and wonderful, with his love for Rachel never in question as she teaches him about their world.

There’s a very strong sense that Borne’s way of looking at the world is totally different to ours, not just in the literal meaning of how he uses his senses, but in how he interprets everything. It’s as if he has totally different frames of reference to the rest of us. His own innate culture is so alien, so other, that he has to work hard to reconcile it with what he’s experiencing. It shows incredible skill that this feeling of otherness comes across so well, because it is a difficult thing to convey in writing. Many others have tried and failed.

In terms of any kind of grand narrative arc, Borne is one of those books where it feels impossible to predict what will happen next, let alone guess at what the endgame might even resemble. The endlessly imaginative world-building VanderMeer deploys means we’re never sure what might be around the next corner, and consequently what effect this might have on the plot. The menacing presence of Wick’s rival the Magician ensures there’s a steady undercurrent of tension – as if the giant flying murder bear wasn’t enough – and there’s a steady raising of the stakes and plenty of ominous foreshadowing. In all honesty though, it’s best to know as little as possible about the plot, lest the freewheeling, down-the-rabbit-hole experience of following it be compromised.

Borne is a dizzying profusion of wondrous ideas, packed with dark imagination and fizzing with creativity, as playful as its eponymous tentacled critter and endlessly inventive. It is by turns sweet and unsettling, cosy and epic, clever and funny; it’s an expertly sustained flight of fancy, and one of the most wonderfully odd books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

Borne is published by 4th Estate, and is available through this affiliate link.

Currently reading: A River Called Time, Courttia Newland
Currently listening: Genesis XIX, Sodom

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer

  1. I’ve been really hesitant to read this. VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy is one of my favorite series of all time, and whenever I read the premise for Borne, I feel…I don’t know, like it couldn’t possibly live up to how great Area X was. And that makes me sad.

    Have you ever read the Area X series? And if so, how does it compare to Borne?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read any other VanderMeer, but Annihilation will probably be one of the next books I buy. I get what you mean though, some authors give themselves really tough acts to follow!

      Like

    1. Enjoyed is an understatement in all honesty, I loved this one! I think it’s a good one to start with by him, as there’s just the one sort-of-sequel and a short story also set in this world, so it stands alone just fine.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! This is such a wild read. I was surprised by how fascinating and delightful Borne is. Personally, I prefer the Area X books. I think you would enjoy them but I imagine the first book one reads by Vandermeer is going to be a little more special than any other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jenna! I was going to ask if you meant Borne as a character or Borne the book, but then realised that “fascinating and delightful” applies to both! Oh, and Annihilation is in the post, looking forward to reading it!

      Like

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