A Thousand Notes in Harmony: A Review of The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Published January 14, 2020 by Del Rey

“It wasn’t music, not as he once understood the term; it was more the music’s marrow, the stuff that would pour from a song’s cracked bone; a rhythmic current; a melody sung not with the mouth but the body.”

It was the music of the language that gripped me, immediately. The lyricism of the prose; the emotion laced within the narrative; the kinetic energy of the words. In his stunning debut, The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez unveils himself to be as much of a composer as he is an author. And he is most certainly an author—weaving together seemingly endless threads with a grace, nuance, and empathy that left me on the verge of tears more often than I’d care to admit.

The Vanished Birds is nothing short of an epic. The story flows through time like the ships on its pages ride the currents of the Pocket, deftly spanning millennia and generations alike. The lens of the narrative is nearly panoptic in proportion—while we follow three primary characters for most of the novel, the gaze will often shift to omniscience, panning like a camera to the rich interior worlds of characters either thought to be secondary or as-yet-unseen. Far from making the story seem fractured or unfocused, Jimenez’s assertive and playful use of perspective yields startling diversity and depth. One gets the sense that every character in the novel is fully alive, and longs more than once to linger longer than Jimenez allows us to before being torn away.

But we hardly regret it, so eager are we to return to our three protagonists. Fumiko Nakajima is hailed as the savior of humanity—an ingenious, but lonely woman who designed the colossal space stations that rescued humanity after climate disasters rendered Old Earth uninhabitable. She extends her life through long periods of deep sleep, and when she wakes is both haunted by a past she cannot fully recall and driven relentlessly toward the future—whatever the cost. Nia Imani is a ship captain who takes jobs shuttling cargo through the Pocket—a space which allows interstellar travel to occur in a fraction of the time it would take to reach destinations without it—and watches the universe unfold around her at a frantic pace while she ages slowly outside of it. She maintains a strict emotional distance with anyone but her crew. But when Ahro—a speechless, orphaned boy with a startling gift for music and another, more powerful ability he has yet to discover—crash-lands on a remote agrarian planet and Nia agrees to take him back to corporate space, the two form an unlikely and unbreakable bond.

When Fumiko becomes aware of his gift and of how it could be harnessed by Umbai, her employer, to change the nature of space-travel forever, she offers Nia a job: take the boy away, keep him hidden from Umbai, and contact her when his power manifests. The collision of these characters is a breathtaking study of loss, family, determination, and love—and more, perhaps, of the ways these are intertwined and animating forces in our lives.

Like the most visionary science fiction writers always have, Jimenez doesn’t waste the opportunities his rich universe offers to reflect on and critique our world, and still gives readers all they’ve come to expect from the genre. Every element of his narrative is playing multiple chords in harmony: the powerful, intergalactic corporation of Umbai is both a satisfyingly sinister antagonist and a stunning critique of capitalism and colonialism; the novel’s examination of time-travel is both a sublimely unique twist on a classic science fiction subject and a thoughtful meditation on the cost of such an ability; Ahro’s gift is both a gripping, fantastic concept to explore and a heartbreaking, emotionally vibrant interrogation of abuse, exploitation, and healing.

In The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez shows himself to be not only a masterful storyteller, but also a thrilling and unique voice to watch in a science fiction genre too often characterized by cliché. Whether you are a fan of science fiction or not, this spectacular novel—with its reimagining of space travel, diverse and textured cast, and deeply emotional core—is one you absolutely cannot miss.

James Craig Hartz Jr.

James Craig Hartz Jr. is a writer and professional writing consultant based in Denver, CO. He holds a BA in English Writing with a minor in Philosophy from the University of Colorado Denver, and will be pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Oregon State University starting in Fall 2020. His nonfiction has appeared in Watershed Review, and his fiction is forthcoming in F(r)iction.