Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review of The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

A phrase I picked up, unfortunately later in my reviewing “career”, is: “When everything is possible, nothing is interesting.” A debilitating aspect of many fantasy novels, there is real value in working with a select few items to build a story's panoply, allowing character, style, and theme to fill the vast spaces between. In The Vanished Birds (2020), debut novel by Simon Jimenez, ever thing is possible—not quite, but almost, which is a shame considering character, style, and theme are strong.

The Vanished Birds is a space opera-esque story, focusing on a handful of people trying to sort out their personal lives in a colonial—not colonized—universe (gotta get creds with the post-mods, natch). The majority focuses on Nia Imani, a space ship captain who makes a most interesting discovery, not in the freight she and crew deliver, but in the form of a teen. The relationships and quests for identity of Imani, her crew, the teen, as well as the people Imani left behind at her home world drive these stories across the universe.

Emphasis on '-esque', the focus of Birds is character despite the degree of window dressing. And it's in character where the novel finds its greatest success. The emotions, mindsets, quandaries, and internal mullings faced by Imani and her constituents feel more real than the majority of pulp space adventure, and is where the novel gets its strongest recommendations.

It's the panoply—the devices and dressing—in which The Vanishing Birds loses some integrity. Things start with a classic 50s plot device (hereafter known as Device A to avoid spoilers) that some may designate retro.  I would be more inclined to say it has gone out of favor for obvious reasons. Suffice to say it severely juxtaposes the realism of character presentation. Muddying the waters flowing beneath the suspension bridge of disbelief, it's a easy to immerse one's self in the internal lives of people, only to be ejected when Device A enters the picture, the contrast strong. Not used metaphorically (at least as far as I could tell), it almost—almost—makes for an 'anything possible' scenario that raises the question whether it was truly necessary.

And Devices B and C later enter the picture. Many core genre readers are likely to expound the virtue of these devices as sensawunda and cool, but again, they beg the question: what do they add to the core story of the people? Transformation? Eye kicks? Distraction? Spuriousness? For some readers the former will ring true, and others, the latter.

Comparable to Ian McDonald's, the strongest aspect of The Vanished Birds alongside character would have to be Jimenez's prose. Colorful without being too dynamic, smooth without being vanilla, and rich without being maudlin, Jimenez brings some chops to the table for a debut novel, something that bodes well for his future as a writer.

Taking all these points into account, I would not be in the least surprised to find The Vanished Birds on many genre award lists next year. It checks a lot of the boxes those groups are looking for, particularly in the political and cultural conditions we currently read in, as well as the flashy, sf devices many readers look for. If one can forgive the semi-kitchen sink approach to this, then indeed there is a lot of merit to the novel. In the very least it's worth a read to understand the state of sf in 2020, as beyond the above average prose, it's representative.

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