I’m going to dig out a reviewer’s cliché and hang the “stunning debut novel” tag on this one; aside from the cover (and that’s just a matter of taste), the book hits just about every mark, straight out the gate.
The story is set in the far future, where mankind has abandoned Earth and spread like a incurable virus across the galaxy. Humanity has cracked the whole interstellar travel thing – almost. Ships can cover great distances in relavatively short timespans; I say “relative” because a few months travelling in space for the crew translates into years for the planets at either end of the ship’s destination.
This is beautifully illustrated in the first few chapters when we get to eavesdrop on the relationship between a farmer and a freighter captain. For the captain, it’s a few months between stopovers. For the farmer, it’s fifteen years.
It’s a big story, spanning a thousand years, so it definitely falls into the literary space opera category. The point of view skips between a number of characters, but this is kept neat and compartmenalised so the reader won’t have any trouble following the plot. It’s all handled well, with smooth transitions between the characters, and the whole story is held together by a mad scientist who’s lifespan covers the entire book.
Technically, there’s not much to fault The Vanished Birds, so that’s half the battle – the other half (the more important half) is the story itself. It’s long, but doesn’t feel like it; the flowery prose is kept tightly in check so you don’t feel yourself drifting off in the middle of a sentence, and unusually for a science-fiction piece, the book is very much character-driven. The author uses flashbacks, stream of consciousness, diaries and backstory to build the characters into believably flawed human beings who (mostly) have to work against their own desires to do the right things – like every good hero really. Normally, I’d say that all these different literary tricks would become overwhelming, but it works really well in a book this long. In fact, the book was very hard to put down (but I have a day job so …).
There’s just enough science and speculation to keep the hardened sci-fi nut happy, but this this really just a great story about love, ambition, sacrifice and loyalty that’s beautifully told. The climax is no great surprise, but I enjoyed the way the pace picked up as we head towards the ending, which was tragic, but in some ways … not so tragic.
For my favourite reads sci-fi reads this year, I’d put The Vanished Birds up there with Alan Dean Foster’s Relics.