The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez.
Titan Books, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Steve Dean
It’s the future, and humanity has spread to many different planets across the vastness of space. Spaceships are built to cross these huge distances, equipped with special drives to allow them to ‘Fold’ space and so reduce the travel time to realistic proportions, although it isn’t instant travel by a long way. Most of the infrastructure, including the space stations, are controlled by a mega-corporation called Umbai (or Umbrai if you read the back cover.) As is the tradition with such stories, Umbai are the bad guys, big business doing what they want, including mass-murder in this case.
Fumiko Nakajima is the brilliant designer of the huge Umbai stations named after birds, hence the title. She has a change of heart during her career and decides that Umbai are evil and must be brought down. To do this she decides to find someone with the natural ability to move themselves between locations, to physically teleport themselves across the galaxy to anywhere they want, no technology needed. This would break Umbai’s stranglehold on travel, and free the galaxy!
I don’t think a spoiler alert is needed here, but a person is found with this strange ability, a young boy who appears from nowhere on a backwoods planet. He’s rescued by Nia Imani, the captain of a transport ship. Fumiko hears about him and uses her by now immense wealth to pull strings and keep the boy safe.
For full disclosure, the copy I’m reviewing here is an advance review copy and not the final version. It’s fully bound and has a cover picture and everything, so I doubt it will change substantially in the final version, but you never know.
The plot is something of a slow burn, starting well before the arrival of the boy or indeed the captain. It’s well written and draws you in, but the first two thirds are very pedestrian in nature, letting the ‘big ideas’ keep the reader interested. The characters are all well drawn and complicated, particularly Fumiko, who has a deep back story revolving around her mother. The story spans the years well, and finally starts to move faster in the last quarter. Don’t expect the action-packed, high technology galactic war of the well-known SF franchises, there are no laser blasters here. The story is much deeper, and I think more realistic than the usual small group of freedom fighters bringing down huge armies.
The problem I have with this novel is mainly centred on the teleporting ability of the boy. This sounds like a device from a fantasy novel, forced into a SF plot. Where the ability came from or how it works is never explained, but just accepted. Despite the fact it’s well-written and has decent characters, this one premise was on my mind all the time as I was reading.
I did enjoy reading it and it helped pass the time during the lockdown. The big question is ‘would I read it again?’ The answer would have to be no, not in its current form. There are problems with the pacing, which flows like molasses in places, and the story starts far too early, but overall it’s readable and I’m sure it will find its share of fans.