reviewed by Max Birner
Hummingbird Salamander will leave you in the dark for as long as it possibly can, before divulging it all in a shocking reveal. It’s a book where you’ll be dazzled but confused as you follow the cryptic mystery that initially begins with a taxidermied hummingbird.
In this part sci-fi part mystery novel, we follow the main character, Jane, as she is trying to discover the history of a woman named Silvina. After being led to a locker with a note from “Silvina” with a taxidermied hummingbird, Jane is advised to also uncover a salamander. Silvina is a reported eco-terrorist with her past affiliations being suspiciously ambiguous. The more Jane finds the more the stakes get higher and higher, but she continues in her pursuit of the truth. You will find yourself asking many questions about Jane and her true motives along the way, but even the protagonist is just another missing piece in the puzzle who is just as difficult to figure out. There are lots of suspicious characters and encounters, and an unease to everyone who Jane interacts with, even her own family.
If you’re looking for a unique and intelligent mystery, I think anyone can easily dig their teeth into this. VanderMeer doesn’t cut any corners in this first-person investigation with Jane. As the narrator, Jane is relentless in her pursuit of the truth which makes her an authentically satisfying character to follow. She throws her whole life aside in order to continue her investigation, and comes off as spiteful to everyone she meets. But her motivation is key to keep the pace moving as you’ll never feel frustrated by her being naïve or clueless.
The cryptic writing might not be to everyone’s taste, but I liked reading a book that almost felt urgent and secretive. Your connection to Jane and the characters is mysterious and purposely ambiguous. Rather, I found this eco-thriller to have a great and unsettling atmosphere while having a lot of strong impacts and messaging about the environment and how humanity strives to sustain and destroy it.
If you’re interested in reading something that feels fresh and exciting even if it’s a little bit outside your usual genre, I’d definitely give this book a try. Jane’s “urgent” and short-sentenced narration was easily the highlight of this book, and worked well with this colorful and early-COVID setting.