Book Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Del Rey (January 14, 2020)
Length: 400 pages
Author Information: Website
I enjoyed The Vanished Birds very much, which surprised me, because it ended up not being the kind of book I would typically like at all! I would definitely recommend it, though I think convincing others that they should check it out will be tough, since the novel is difficult to categorize and the story itself can be a bit strange. By the end of it though, it filled me with a mix of complex emotions, some happy and bittersweet.
Told in multiple parts, and via multiple timelines across a huge time frame, the beginning of The Vanished Birds first introduces to Nia Imani who captains a transport ship, carrying goods and harvest products from their origin planets for her employers, the all-powerful Umbai Company. On one of her runs to a backwater planet, a mysterious boy falls out of the sky and into Nia’s life, giving it a new purpose and meaning. The boy doesn’t speak, but through music, he begins to form a connection with Nia, playing beautiful songs on his flute that tugs on something inside of her. There’s something about the boy, whose name is Ahro, as Nia and her crew eventually find out. He is special, though none of them really know why, but his existence eventually catches the attention of some influential and dangerous people.
Readers also get to meet aerospace engineering designer Fumiko Nakajima, who helped create Umbai’s massive space stations that allowed them to dominate the industry. It’s a decision she has always regretted, since it had meant choosing her work over love many years ago. But her employers are ever demanding more from her, including a way to make travel through space faster and more efficient. When Fumiko learns of a boy who has abilities that could potentially revolutionize space travel, she reaches out with an offer to Nia, who has since grown close to Ahro.
Shifting between points-of-view of characters, some of whom are more than hundreds of years old due to the time dilation effects of space travel and technology like suspended animation, the novel tells a saga that spans more than a millennium. In this way, the story explores a lot of the themes and issues that affect human civilization and history, among them environmental and resource depletion, corporate greed on steroids. That said, the book also takes a look at life on a more personal level, as the plot follows the loves, desires, and ambitions of characters over a thousand years. Not a lot of futuristic fiction have the advantage of being told on a scale this vast, which gives The Vanished Birds a somewhat unique angle on a premise that is already very imaginative.
However, this can also make the book quite difficult to parse, with its convoluted timelines and beginnings that aren’t really beginning and endings that aren’t really endings. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is; this story has many layers, and they gradually peel away to reveal all the connections and answers that ultimately make this novel so satisfying. The experience requires patience and commitment to the characters and their individual journeys, because their purpose might not become clear until much later, even as the circumstances surrounding them become stranger and more abstract.
Luckily though, this is a very character-focused novel, and becoming invested in them isn’t difficult. Simon Jimenez’s writing is deep and soulful in its handling of our characters’ secret hearts and minds. The overall tone of the story can be described as quiet and emotional, but what it lacks in excitement and action it makes up for with meaningful relationships and the weight of personal decisions. I loved the bond between Nia and Ahro, which grew into something very beautiful and pure. Fumiko’s sacrifices for knowledge and progress damn near broke my heart. And speaking of heartbreak, I won’t be giving away any details of the ending, but certain elements of it did leave me feeling devastated and stricken. And yet, amidst all the losses, there is still light, and I hold tight to the hope that the words on the final page made me feel.
So if The Vanished Birds sounds like something you might like, I highly encourage you to give it a try, bearing in mind some of its twisted complexities, apparent agendas, and aspects that are just downright bizarre. However, if you are a fan of character-driven novels with emphasis on interpersonal relationships and choices that shape the world and their future, it is absolutely worth your time and attention. This is an excellent, thoroughly enchanting debut by Simon Jimenez.