I devoured a few books this past month and 'The Vanished Birds' is one that I read quickly but will ponder on for a long time. It's beautifully written, the tactile prose of Simon Jimenez is outrageously mature for a debut novelist. It's ambitious in its scope and in its construction but, with the odd minor exception, the author whisks us through his vision with panache.
Because it's hard to truly define who this story is about, I'll start out by defining where it happens. We're a thousand years and change into the future and the wildly overpopulated Earth has spread out into the galaxy, with vast swathes of people living in space stations designed in the form of creatures of nature. However, it's ruled over by a single corporation, Umbai, which is at one the saviour of the human race and a dystopian future for it.
We start out on Umbai-V, a simple, almost mediaeval world whose people farm the land in peace, always waiting for the next Shipment Day, when spaceships arrive to carry off their crop of dhuba. Our focus initially appears to be a boy named Kaeda, who's seven during his first Shipment Day and drawn to Nia Imani, a quiet ship's captain. He lives his entire life during this opening chapter, because Shipment Days to him are fifteen years apart, but through a time dilated mathematics that rules the Pocket, space through which traders travel, are only eight months for Nia.
Looking back, having finished the book, this first chapter is a real delight but one that reads more like a short story. Even though it has relevance to the wider novel and it introduces much, not only Nia but a mysterious young boy, entirely mute, who quite literally falls from the sky when Kaeda is an old man and whom he adopts until he can hand him over to Nia during her next visit, it stands apart from the book as a whole.
This is due to a habit that Jimenez has of deepening his universe by telling us about it from different perspectives. If chapter one is Kaeda's, Nia soon takes over, but she's not always our focal point. Another chapter follows a lady named Fumiko Nakajima, a genius who leaves Earth to design those space stations for Umbai and so enable the next stage in humanity's history. She's still around a thousand years later in Nia's time, because of her judicious use of coldsleep, and she's a fascinating character in her own right.
Somehow finding out about the young boy, who eventually learns to speak and gains the name of Ahro, she sets the rest of the story in motion. She hires Nia to work the fringe worlds outside of Allied space for what could easily be fifteen years with Ahro and her chosen overseer, Sartoris Moth, until the boy develops into what she thinks he will become. At the point he does, she should bring him to her and she may just be responsible for yet another leap forward in humanity's reach toward the stars.
Yes, that's mysterious, and I'll leave the synopsis there, to focus on some of the aspects of the book that annoyed me, most of which, to be completely fair, are not Jimenez's fault. I get what the cover art is trying to do but it's frankly awful. The back cover blurb is wildly misleading. Nia Imani is a sort of time traveller, but that's not a good way to start a summary of a new book. Sure, she takes in a boy who refuses to speak but that isn't long-lasting. I was eager to read about a time traveller and a mute boy who talks through music, but that's really not what this is in the slightest.
I'm sure that those aren't Jimenez's fault but I can lay other problems at his feet. There's a grand reveal, of course, about Ahro's particular talent but I felt that Jimenez mismanaged it. We're given one mild hint at what it might be and then he apparently assumes we grasped its true nature and then talks about it almost as an aside, with all its substantial impact lost. I'd also praise his patience for three hundred pages and change, the development of his story almost flawless and with some truly magnificent setpieces, but the last couple of chapters seem rushed and not entirely appropriate. Sure, I was turning pages in a frenzy to discover how everything would wrap up but then it ever so suddenly did and I didn't buy into all of his decisions.
I should add that there's a deep and abiding sadness in this book haunting a number of the key characters and I thoroughly appreciated that. Reading how Nia and Fumiko and Ahro and others, not least Nia's new pilot, Vaila, carry on regardless after traumatic moments in their past that end up defining who they become, in such lyrical and sensory language is a real treat. I found a deep connection to each of these sadnesses and could easily accept that such sadness might define where they end up, but having got to know these folk so well through Jimenez's talent, I felt I knew when he went too far.
There are also questions left unanswered, minor ones for sure, but ones that I dearly wanted to find answers to. For instance, it's no spoiler to explain that Ahro, previously without a name, came from "A Quiet Ship, swollen with music & suffering." It shapes who he is and who he becomes, but we're never given any explanation about what Quiet Ships are or who fly them.
And I realise that I've just pointed out problems for four paragraphs but I should emphasise that I adored this book. It's testament to how deeply I was drawn into these characters and their shared stories that I care so much as to highlight them. This affected me like no novel since Sarah Pinsker's 'A Song for a New Day' and that went on to win the Nebula. Expect this to show up on awards lists next year and, very possibly, to win some of them. And I should also emphasise that it's a debut novel. I can't wait to see what this author will conjure up next, but I'm in for the long haul, even if it means taking coldsleep or travelling through the Pocket to see the results. ~~ Hal C F Astell