June 3, 2021

Review: The Vanished Birds

The Vanished Birds The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has gotten a lot of praise, but unfortunately I didn't feel it. It took me quite a while to read, and on more than one occasion as I was slogging my way through the middle I came near to giving up. I will say it is beautifully written, as this one sample paragraph aptly demonstrates (the character, Ahro, has just discovered his teleporting powers):

He rode the current off that world, through the nebulae, through the asteroid motes and gas giants, the stellar rings and mythic constellations, he an ancient and new creation, breaking through the laws of this reality, crashing through the established walls, the cans and cannots on his way back home, flying past the thousands, millions of other lines that spread out in an infinite network, old paths traveled, and new paths yet to be walked. He flitted past all of this, until the Painted City spun toward him, gaining in terrifying scope, he an infinitesimally small thing crashing toward it, toward the smoothstone spaceport, through it and its materials, the layers of metal and lastique and tamed quarry rock, slower now, drifting down, through the Debby's charred hull, ancient hull, hull that had spent countless ages in transit, carrying with it thousandfold stories, and down, gently, into his hatch, the world flexing, and pulsing, before returning to its original, solid shapes.

There are paragraphs and paragraphs, and pages upon pages, of prose just like this. It's lovely to read, at least for a while, to take it slow and appreciate what the author is doing. But finally I started shaking my head and rolling my eyes, and thinking, Come on, dude, pare back those beautiful sentences and flowing paragraphs, and get on with the story. It's not that I don't appreciate flowery writing. One of my favorite books is Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover, and one way to describe her writing in that book is "lush." But at the same time, she had a good grasp of pacing and storytelling, and that combination created what I think is a classic SF novel.

This book...I dunno, man.

The story doesn't really get started until past the hundred-page mark. The first three (long) chapters only serve to introduce three of the main characters and the basic setup. Then the plot takes another long drag to get going, and the different strands don't really come together until the last quarter of the book. The pacing greatly improved after that, but it didn't erase the memory of the beautiful but endless paragraphs it took to get there.

Also, the science in this book is not the greatest. In particular, the name for Ahro's teleportation ability made me think, Really? You couldn't come up with anything better than that? Because it's called "the Jaunt." Which does nothing except remind me of a cheesy forty-year-old Stephen King sci-fi horror story of the same name. That story also references Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, which is maybe what Jimenez is paying homage to as well; but still, wherever it came from, that name is just dull and flat.

The ending is also not the best, as the book just comes to a beautiful, sudden, jarring halt. The captain of the spaceship referred to above, the Debby, has just rescued Ahro from the pocket universe he had been imprisoned in by the villain of the story, a corporation who captured him and used him to grant instant teleportation travel to the galaxy. It's fine that Captain Imani got him out, but you know perfectly well they're both going to be hunted through the stars now, and the book doesn't deal with any of that. There's no resolution, emotionally or story-wise, and the ending left me very dissatisfied.

So this is a beautifully written literary sci-fi novel, and if that's what you're looking for this is right up your alley. For those of us who will take the lovely writing in a more disciplined form, with less runaway prose and more story, it falls woefully short.

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