REVIEW: ‘The Vanished Birds’ is Character-Driven Sci-Fi

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez, Del Rey

The Vanished Birds: A Novel is written by  Simon Jimenez and is published by  Del Rey.   A brief synopsis of the novel is that a space traveler named Nia Imani comes into contact with a strange boy who cannot speak.  Feeling a sense of home with him, and the music he plays, she signs her life away to a scientist named Fumiko  Nakajima so she can be with him.   At its core, it is a story of a found family with a sci-fi backdrop.

Jimenez captures a sense of awe with his descriptions of the interworkings of the universe. Starting with a  focus on a small farmer boy named Kaeda. We learn that science has allowed for space and time travel. We are introduced to Nia on a Shipment Day, a day every 15 years where space travelers enter pockets of space to deliver goods off-world and celebrate.  While Kaeda is 22, he meets Nia as an adult. She is a carefree traveler doing work for the Umbai Company on shipments.  He tragically falls for her even though he will be  37 the next time he sees her. Jimenez ‘s sense of pacing is accelerated in his first chapter, briskly moving readers through Kaeda’s life until the mysterious boy falls from the sky.   With the next Shipment Day right around the corner,  Kaeda awaits for Nia in hopes she will help.

It is through Nia that this novel sucks me in. Her innate sense of protectiveness for this boy pulls at my heartstrings. Jimenez knows how to jump between characterizing her through her feelings towards this boy and through her dialogue with her ship members.  This mystery boy, not named until lated in the novel, has a knack for playing music on a flute. His tunes resonating deeply with the inner stirrings of Nia’s need for companionship. In him, she sees a missing part of her.   Nia’s ship, named the Debby, brings them to Pelican Station where our other focal character comes into play.  With Fumiko Nakajima, a third perspective is introduced. So, far this is excellent.

Both Fumiko and Nia are incredibly different, well-written female protagonists.   her back story provides more insight into the futuristic world where beauty augmentation is the norm and space-time travel hasn’t been invented… because Fumiko hasn’t created it yet.   A daughter to an overbearing, vain mother Jimenez’s use of parallel storytelling between her and Nia are incredible.   Nia’s painful Earth life, from a humble upbringing with family tragedy leads her down the path of always traveling with no sense of home. Fumiko’s privileged life as an overworked student of science is a complete 180 from Nia.  Fumiko is reserved and practical. She views her life as an equation to be answered.  I thoroughly enjoyed her backstory chapters. Jimenez lets us peer into how Fumiko created space-travel. His imagination is lyrical in its descriptions of  Nakajima’s need to push the world forward.  There is never any reason to feel confused as Jimenez is clear and concise in his explanations and descriptions.

With a switch in perspective to Nia’s after Nakajima’s backstory, Jimenez expertly makes us empathize with this brilliant woman just to tune the audience into how there are two sides to every coin. Fumiko believes that the musical child Nia saved has a special ability that would allow him to travel through space quicker with no time-jumps like the 15 years in between Shipment Days as discussed at the beginning of the novel.  Obsessed with wanting to dissect him like a science project, she drafts a contract for Nia that lists for the next 15 years, she will be escorting the boy on the outskirts of space to allow him to grow and discover his powers.  Tensions rise and it becomes clear that Fumiko is the antagonist of this story.  Her inhumane outlook on the life of this child makes how Jimenez writes Nia’s feelings so much stronger in relation.  The Vanished Birds was quickly becoming a fast-paced, intelligent family drama with intriguing philosophical questions to ponder.  In the name of progress, do we strip a boy of his rights and doom him to a life on the run waiting to be exploited by scientists? Do we root and hope that Nia will whisk him away to safety where she can raise him as her own and live a happy life?

At this half-way point,  I was ready to dive into how Jimenez will develop these ideas. To my dismay,   the second half of The Vanished Birds loses my interest.  The novel begins to introduce more characters with their own dedicated chapters. At this point, it is difficult to feel care or empathy for these new characters. Having such an intricately written parallel story between Nia and Fumiko is jumbled by this, and it also disrupts the flow of the novel. I almost wanted to skip these parts because it felt like I was reading an entirely different book.  As a reader,  it was frustrating to feel like I had to drudge through  these parts just to reach the “good stuff.”   Jimenez did a lot of heavy-lifting setting up a rapid pace for this novel, alongside heavy characterization to understand our two protagonists.  The deviation from both those characters feels out of place and jarring. As the story continues to introduce points of view from other characters, my interest quickly depletes.

However, I was pulled back into the story when the boy (who names himself Ahro) is given his own perspective. This starts to bring the novel back to its center.  Unfortunately, it never truly recovers.  As the drama continues to unfold over Fumiko’s want to analyze Ahro for her personal gain versus Nia’s want to protect him, I  cannot seem to feel empathetic as there is a wedge written between their story and Ahro’s.   By the last act, the perspective switches back to concentrating solely on Nia and Fumiko.  It picks up due to Jimenez knowing when to use his melodic writing to manipulate readers’ hearts. The drama of family loves and humanism arises in a powerful way that circles back to the start of The Vanished Birds.

When it was all said and done, this book was a frustrating experience.  For every chapter I loved, there were two chapters that I could barely manage through due to the frequent switching of characters and pacing.   There is immense talent in the sweeping, grand universe he conjures within the script of The Vanished  Birds.   His lyrical writing style shines when focusing on Nia Imani and Fumiko  Nakajima ,but falters with misplaced character introductions.  If this debut novel focused solely on these two characters, it would have been one of my new favorite sci-fi books.  While there are many critiques I have, I will say to keep an eye on Jimenez as a writer. I am excited to see him grow and create more worlds to explore.  You can purchase The Vanished Birds anywhere where books are sold and through  Penguin Random House

The Vanished Birds
3.5

TL;DR

There is immense talent in the sweeping, grand universe he conjures within the script of The Vanished  Birds. His lyrical writing style shines when focusing on Nia Imani and Fumiko  Nakajima, but falters with misplaced character introductions.  If this debut novel focused solely on these two characters, it would have been one of my new favorite sci-fi books.