The Vanished Birds is another book that I didn’t know much about before award nominations came out, but Simon Jimenez was nominated for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer on the strength of this debut, so I thought it was well worth a shot.
Before starting, I had heard that The Vanished Birds was a space opera with strong found family themes, but that description doesn’t come close to capturing the literary tapestry that makes up the novel. The story takes place in a far future where space has been colonized by corporate interests, but travel between planets is limited to journeys through Pocket Space, in which little time passes for the travelers but years go by for those on either end. Against this backdrop, we see several perspective characters forced to make the best of conflicts between work and relationships, or between two incompatible relationships, where everything gained is paid in something important lost.
While there are three characters and one plot line that I would consider central, The Vanished Birds is made up of myriad smaller stories just as much as it is a couple big ones. We see an entire chapter that feels like a stand-alone novelette, dedicated to the life of a character we’ll never meet again. We see another chapter made up predominantly of journal entries written by a side character in the main plot. These aren’t anomalies—there are several other examples of significant page time given to secondary or tertiary perspectives—and they really work, with these beautifully written secondary vignettes yielding some of the most engrossing sections of the book.
Splitting the narrative so many ways does make for a story that meanders, and while the quality of the prose and of the side characters keeps it engaging during the digressions, the structure and pacing are out-of-step with contemporary genre trends and won’t appeal to every reader. Additionally, while The Vanished Birds devotes plenty of time to large-scale horrors of corporate colonialism and to individual decisions between equally appealing (or unappealing) options, it rarely offers clear resolutions. There may be small victories or defeats or reckonings with past choices, but this is not a revolution book, and there’s no big question whose answer isn’t messy. And those incomplete or ambiguous answers feel right for the story being told, but whether or not they satisfy will vary widely among readers.
Personally, I find that the ambiguities and partial resolutions in The Vanished Birds generally work well, but there are a couple instances where it seems like the book is setting up a greater exploration of a particular subplot that just never comes. I also had a harder time connecting to some of the central characters than to the side characters, which made it difficult to appreciate the narrowed focus of the narrative as it approached its climax. Combined with key storylines getting increasingly symbolic as the story progressed, it led to an experience of really loving some of the set pieces but not quite clicking with the cohesive whole.
Overall, I expect The Vanished Birds to yield widely varying reactions. The excellent prose, engaging secondary characters, and willingness to explore difficult themes without resorting to pat answers make it well worth the read, but that same willingness to sit in ambiguity can lead to a lack of cohesion and the feeling that some subplots had more to give. That balance may strike some readers as perfect but leave others dissatisfied. For me, it’s somewhere in the middle, yielding a book that I heartily recommend for the pieces I loved even while recognizing that other subplots didn’t quite come together.
Recommended if you like: literary science fiction, strong prose, ambiguous resolutions, coming-of-age, found family.
Can I use it for Bingo? As part of the r/Fantasy Hugo Readalong (I’m leading today, so if you’ve read this one, hop in!), it counts for Book Club, plus Found Family (hard mode), Chapter Titles, Latinx Author, and Debut Author
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.