This week, I’m playing catch-up by reviewing a book which passed me by when it first came out in 2020. Crazy really, when you consider what it’s about and how closely it aligns with the sort of thing I normally read and review! It’s time to correct this slip up anyway, by finally tackling Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds.
With the now familiar setup of Earth being thoroughly on the ropes, humanity has spread out into the rest of the galaxy, aided by both the discovery of time currents and the brilliant mind of Fumiko Nakajima. Through the stations designed by Fumiko spread throughout settled space, the Umbai Company exerts huge control and influence over all of humanity, their contractors traversing the time currents to ferry goods from all over their vast commercial empire. Nia is one such contractor; the captain of the Debby, she is about to finish a well paid job for Umbai when the seemingly inexplicable arrival of a mysterious boy results in a potentially even more lucrative arrangement. Because Fumiko has been waiting for someone just like him, with his potential to upset the balance of power making him hugely sought after.
The Vanished Birds begins with perhaps one of the most memorable and distinctive opening chapters in recent memory. With a truly visionary touch, we bear witness to the life story of Kaeda, who first meets the alluring Captain Nia when he’s just seven years old. Fifteen years later, she’s back, but hasn’t changed at all – thanks to the time currents which she navigates, the round trip from Pelican Station to his world has taken her just eight months. Their long distance, time dilated “relationship” sets both the tone and the theme for much of the rest of the novel, because – to be unashamedly trite – it’s about time.
If this all sounds like something that’s aiming to tug at your heartstrings, you’re not wrong. Anyone who travels the time currents knows the sacrifices they’re making, as they leave behind friends and loved ones who will have aged unrecognisably or perhaps even died by the time they make it back. The currents are a neat piece of world building, both a way of getting round the narrative inconvenience of the impossibility of faster than light travel and a detail which tells us something about those who navigate them. What sort of person must they be, to be happy with the idea of leaving their loved ones behind? What might have driven them to this?
Unsurprisingly, the crew of the Debby are tight knit in that found family way, which feels absolutely necessary and completely natural, given the nature of their work. Relationships are another major theme of The Vanished Birds, again established by that remarkable opening chapter. Whether it’s the relationship between Kaeda and Nia, Kaeda and the boy, Fumiko and her lover, or Nia and the rest of the crew, love and loss permeate every part of the novel. It’s the exploration of how the characters deal with both of these that makes for such compelling reading; all of them have made sacrifices of one sort or the other, and some of them still struggle to atone for their decisions in their own minds. How their past actions inform their present day decisions never fails to be both interesting and understandable, the characters’ various arcs feeling both epic and meticulously, considerately constructed.
It’s an immersive world which Jimenez has constructed here, the kind you could be forgiven for wanting to wallow in; the Wayfarers universe comes to mind, with its emphasis on worldbuilding and relationships, and where plot sometimes (happily) takes a backseat. But there is plenty going on outside of the relatively narrow focus of Nia’s story, as Fumiko struggles to stay one step ahead of the Umbai Company whilst awaiting word from Nia that the boy has come into his power. Whilst the machinations of the Umbai company don’t feel underdeveloped as such, they do take a backburner for much of the novel. The final act, as emotionally stirring as it is, feels a little more like a sprint to the finish than the gentle “birds coming home to roost” denouement that you might hope to see, but the emotional stakes remain as high as ever.
The Vanished Birds is exemplary science fiction, combining masterful worldbuilding, weighty and emotive storytelling and considered prose to fabulous effect. It’s no wonder that its publication has seen Jimenez compared to genre greats such as Le Guin and Jemisin – whatever he puts out next, I’ll certainly be reading it.
The Vanished Birds is published by Titan Books.