The Vanished Birds

I haven’t seen this one around much and I’m not sure I’ve seen any real reviews of it, but for some reason, I found myself drawn to it. I didn’t even really know what it was about, to be honest, other than a vague idea that it was a sci-fi standalone (a rare thing, and one that I tend to enjoy…This is How You Lose the Time War is a favorite of mine from this year). So after passing by it in the library a couple times, I finally decided to go for it.

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

“In the plaza of the Painted City, below the triad moons, his eyes rolled back and his hand clutched his chest and he let it take him. He gave his body up to the dancers and the moons, the black ocean and the roar. Time inhaled its breath and stopped the movements of this world. The dancers were pinned to the air and the drinkers held in their kingly repose of goblets tipped into open mouths, while above them all the glittering streamers were glued to the sky, his last thought a guttural recognition of how beautiful it was, this frozen sea of love and action, before the power within him, that old stranger, returned, and upon a blast of light he fell away from this world; his body gone, between the celebratory beat of their drums.”

In a story that spans years, decades, centuries, The Vanished Birds introduces us to a few key characters. Nia Imani, a women who travels outside of time across the universe and back, distanced from her past and most of the people she meets. A mysterious, silent child with a traumatic past, who ends up in Nia’s care. Fumiko Nakajima, a brilliant scientist who creates the technology that allows humans to survive the end of Earth and, centuries later, brings Nia and the boy together in an attempt to control the next big technological breakthrough. Nia and the boy develop a connection through found family and music that, though Fumiko’s plans are horribly shattered, may help them survive and find each other again at the end of it all.   

Alright, first things first: peeps are SLEEPING on this book. Holy sh*t this novel was WONDERFUL. I finished days ago and have put off writing this review because I know there is no way I will be able to do it justice or fully put into words how strongly I felt about it. I truly am so impressed by the entire scope of the plot, the breadth of time it covers, the connection I felt for the characters and their roles/realities, the blunt intensity of the messages it conveys about the dangers (to human life, human lives) of unchecked and monopolistic capitalism. Phew. Deep breath. Let me just try. Ok.

“What more is there to say in the face of truth than silence?”

First, the sci-fi elements. What a freaking fascinating, totally original combination of traditional sci-fi elements. There’s the “end of the Earth-world” situation, the venturing of humans into space as “the only option left after the planet is destroyed,” the clear and inflexible class/privilege lines that are drawn through those events (related to access, primarily), the distortion of time that comes with interstellar travel, the creation of new worlds/systems/societies and world-building that accompanies that, advanced technology that (in some cases) borders on the magical but is firmly based in science, a sort of special/“chosen-one” aspect, and all the things one loves about spaceship based found families (think Firefly and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet). But while all these recognizable elements are included, they are combined in a way that is completely unique, that I have never read before. And I am not sure how the author did it, but despite the fact that literal decades passed while reading, I never felt rushed through the story, my connections to the plot/people never suffered as a result, and I truly felt like I lived the real passing of time. Amazingly written pacing. In addition, despite the myriad settings, I felt like the world-building was full enough to be understood and pictured without spending so much time developing that aspect that I got bored or lost touch with the rest of the pieces of the story. This may in part be due to the variety of perspectives that we get as each part of the story is told. Jimenez chose the perfect voices/narrators to convey each piece as we move through the novel, which was key as far as connecting me to it all and allowing the story to be deeply and insightfully told over the (substantial) time periods it covers. Perfectly chosen in each case.

“‘They still believe memories are citizens of the mind. But memories also live in the bones, and the blood.’”

I know I already sort of started in on the writing, but most of what I’ve mentioned so far is technical. But there was something deeper in the writing, harder to describe, that really struck a chord with me as a reader. It pulled me in and made me feel the story, experience it, and not “just” read it. There’s a sort of melancholic aura to the story from the start – not the kind of melancholy that makes you sad (though little about this novel could be considered happy), but the kind that weighs you down and settles deep into your bones. I’ll remember these characters and their stories, yes, but even more than that, I’ll remember the way I felt while reading about them – and that’s such a way to leave a reader with a lasting impression of a story. Sort of related, there is such a lovely thread of connection throughout the book that weaves memories and music and love in a very emotional way. It’s just divine.   

And a final short note before I wrap up. There is a passionate, severe judgement on colonialism and capitalism that is mostly slow-burn/back-burner throughout the earlier portions of the novel, but comes on with a vengeance in the last quarter. It’s set up perfectly for an impactful delivery and I was completely stunned by it. The unexpected parable of morality, of sacrifices for a financially-defined “greater good,” of the behind-the-scenes costs of advancement of the privileged masses. Shrewd and sharp, delivered in a forceful way that is impossible to miss, impossible to condone, and directly applicable to our world today.    

“Once in a rare while, there is an alignment. Moments that, to some, reveal the workings of God, and to others are simple fortune. But there is no known explanation for this communion of events. It only is.”

GAH. This story is so tragic and poignant and emotionally no-holds-barred, with a slow-build ending you’re straining, dying to get to and both hits like a dump-truck in the moment and unfolds/settles slowly into your mind over days. Like I said, I’ve been sitting with it and thinking about it for days since finishing, getting more and more worked up about how amazing it was and feeling farther and farther away from any ability to convey it. Just…stop sleeping on it and go read this one!

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