Simon Jimenez’s sweeping space opera, “The Vanished Birds,” starts out small, with what could be a stand-alone novella: a boy is born with an extra finger, and his father declares that he will be special. He lives on a Resource World: a planet that is used to grow a crop that is harvested, saved and exported off-world every fifteen years by cargo ships.
It is a rural society, divided into hunters and farmers. The most exciting thing that happens is the arrival of the ships, whose crews never age due to the effects of interstellar travel. The boy grows up and becomes leader of his village, thinking this is the special destiny his father predicted, but he is always haunted by a yearning for the stars—and for the captain of the cargo ship, with whom he has a dalliance.
However, his true destiny may lie in helping and caring for another young boy—a boy who appears in a fiery wreckage out of nowhere but who is unharmed. A boy who cannot or will not speak. This now old man gives the mysterious young boy a flute that the cargo captain gave to him, and the boy, the flute, and the captain leave the man behind.
And thus the story really begins.
This small story sets up the big themes of the book: how does a person figure out what they’re really meant for? How do we find and define family?
How do we deal with the messy emotions that come with sacrifice and desire? What if we live long enough to see the unintended consequences of our decisions?
Jimenez moves the story back and forth in time in jumps of thousands of years and in decades, filling out the world of the book. This universe is a potential or alternate future, a look at what might happen as our planet gets more and more uninhabitable and those with means build ways to escape.
It then asks what society those people’s ancestors would create generations down the line. The familiar notes of these types of stories are there in the framing, but told in a much more intimate way. This is not a world that is gentle with its characters, but the best moments come when a character gives themselves the grace to be gentle or loving and not molded by the universe’s hardness.
Oh, and queerness is baked into this universe – a fact only remarkable in how some of the strong romantic connections between people indelibly affect their actions. I won’t say anything more specific because it should be the pleasure of the reader to journey through this remarkable novel and be in the moment as the story unfolds.
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