The Vanished Birds
by Simon Jimenez
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 26, 2020
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The opening chapter of Simon Jimenez's debut novel, The Vanished Birds, would have made a terrific short story, perhaps novelette, on its own. I actually thought I had read it before, possibly online, or maybe in one of the Sunspot Jungle anthologies. I finally tracked down the story I was thinking of, but it was by another author, only the beginnings were similar, and they developed in entirely different ways. Chapter 3 would have also worked well on its own, but unless I'm mistaken no part of this novel had been previously published.
The story opens on the colony world of Umbai-V, which is a cross between an agrarian and a hunter/gatherer culture. They are connected to the wider universe through transport ships that carry their major crop, dhuba, back to the Umbai corporation's orbiting facility, Pelican Station, but apparently little or no high technology is shared with the colony. Seven-year-old Kaeda is fascinated to meet the off-worlders, especially the beautiful Nia Imani. She is the captain of the Debby, a ship she named after her sister. She has a contract for six trips to Umbai-V, each round trip comprising about eight months of her subjective time, but the journey is within "pocket folds," or wormholes. Fifteen years pass on Umbai-V in the meantime, so Kaeda is 22 the second time he meets Nia, when she fulfills one of his most powerful fantasies by seducing him. They again have sex when he is 37 and 52, although from his perspective she has hardly aged at all. I cannot recall if they were also intimate when he is 67, nor can I remember at what age he became governor of his village. The chapter is not just about his relationship with Nia, it covers his maturation within his community, first as a steady field hand, then his later move to the counting house, which helped forge the connections that lead to his election as governor. A few months prior to when he expects Nia's last visit, another ship crash lands near the village, a young boy found amidst the wreckage. He doesn't speak, but seems to understand Kaeda's questions. Kaeda gives the boy a wooden flute that had been a gift from Nia decades before. The tones of the flute are the only sound the boy makes.
Chapter 2 sees the boy taken aboard Nia's ship. She is patient with him, but the same cannot be said of her crew. He plays the flute constantly, the sounds carried throughout the ship by ventilation shafts, which gets on the nerves of all of them. One of them storms into his cabin and breaks the flute. He had eventually talked, but only to Nia, who learns his name is Ahro, although he is not sure of the spelling in Station Standard. She tells him of the wonders he will see on Pelican Station, which segues into Chapter 3, a flashback to Earth a thousand years prior, to Fumiko Nakajima, the engineer who designed the Pelican, and her sister stations, Macaw, Barbet, and Thrasher. By the time the Debby docks at Pelican Nia had developed a fondness and attachment to Ahro, so she is upset when he is taken into custody by station security. Fate does not want to separate them however, and a special person tasks Nia with another mission. She is to take Ahro back on board the Debby, educate him as much as possible, and observe his actions. It is suspected that he has a special ability. The person who suspects that, and who offers the job to Nia, is none other than Fumiko Nakajima, who has spent the majority of a millennia in cold sleep, periodically being revived to check on the progress of her stations and other experiments. This gets us about 40% into the book, and where I need to be very vague in the remainder of my comments.
One of the most positive comments I can make is that it is unpredictable, but that is not always a good thing. When a character acts differently than you expect, it can be in a negative direction. Other things can happen that don't make much sense. My first disappointment was a term Fumiko used to describe what she suspected about Ahro, a term from a much older book, and as far as I know only ever associated with the phenomenon in that book. No, I won't reveal the word or the book. I don't understand why Fumiko suspected Ahro of possessing that talent, nor what she expected to do with the information if her suspicions were verified. We do know what Fumiko's rivals at Umbai did with the information, turning on her and banishing her to live out her life on the remote moon where she had created her secret laboratories. Another thing that disappointed me was the rudimentary descriptions of ship systems, some of which seemed anachronistic. I still give this a reserved recommendation. The worldbuilding skills need improvement, but character, plot, and descriptive prose is impressive, particularly the passages describing Ahro's talent. Jimenez's talent is evident, and I'll be interested to see what he does next.
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