All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published January 26, 2016
All the Birds in the Sky is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Seeming to transcend genre, (the closest match I could come up with is magic realism speculative fiction) the book deals with serious themes of nature vs. technology and climate change, through two outsider pre-teen protagonists who just might grow-up to destroy, or save, the world. While some building blocks of the story will feel familiar (boy meets girl, they’re from completely different worlds, etc.), All the Birds in the Sky is a unique novel that offers a lot to admire, including a two-second time machine, a matchmaking AI, and a snarky parliament of birds.
Beginning in childhood, All the Birds in the Sky tells the story of Patricia Delfine, a witch who can talk to animals, and Laurence Armstead, a science and technology genius, who builds a two-second time machine in middle school and tries to perfect artificial intelligence in his bedroom closet. Set apart by their odd “witchiness” and aptitude for technology respectively, they are bullied and ostracized by their peers, and misunderstood by their parents. This adversity makes wary allies and then genuine friends out of Patricia and Laurence, despite their very different world views. They reconnect as adults in San Francisco, but Patricia and Laurence are on opposite sides of a war between science and magic set against the eco-apocalypse, and the fate of the world depends on them both. Probably.
I really loved Patricia. In a less-talented author’s story, I could so easily see her being relegated to the manic pixie dream girl role, but fortunately for the reader, in All the Birds in the Sky she’s a flawed character who lives a life independent of her love interests. Working crappy server/waitress types of jobs during the day, by night she tries to make up for past mistakes by using her magic to discreetly help people, in ways that include easing an AIDS patient’s pain and ensuring an addict can never use again. Patricia’s greatest struggle is that her large heart and desire to help everyone leads her to close-calls with the magic-users’ principle of enforcing humility through warning against aggrandizement, the principle of thinking too highly of yourself or your powers. I also loved that in times of panic Patricia remains calm and thinks practically, but she still feels very deeply.
I wasn’t quite as connected to Laurence, who comes off a little ungrateful and demanding at times, but he mostly won me over. The secondary characters are well-rendered, each feeling distinct and interesting, and I liked that most of the characters are shades of grey rather than solely good or evil. The author also casually includes a non-binary character as one of Patricia’s friends, which is fabulous to see in SFF.
Aside from the characters, I also really enjoyed the science vs. magic/nature vs. technology theme of the novel. Patricia, who can talk to animals, and Laurence, an engineering genius, are set up respectively as the embodiment of nature and technology, but although these concepts seem to be opposites, it turns out there’s more common ground than initially expected. Without giving away too much, the overarching idea seems to be that things are better when humans communicate and work together than when we act without understanding, which I think is important.
The prose is generally simple but effective for the story Anders is telling, and she sprinkles humour throughout, not in a Pratchett or Douglas Adams way where humour is the predominant quality, but I definitely chuckled from time-to-time.
I do have a few complaints. The assassin subplot that runs through the first part of the novel in the presence of creepy Mr. Rose is abandoned without much in the way of follow-up. I also found the end of the world came on very suddenly. Admittedly I can see how this would be the case. Mentions and vague threats about the impact of climate change are there in the background of the novel, just as in the present day, so a quick escalation to disasters that threaten the planet makes sense, I just didn’t see it coming and felt a bit blindsided as All the Birds in the Sky built to its climax. Ultimately though, these are minor complaints in a short, unique novel that’s well worth your time.