REVIEW: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Dear Charlie Jane Anders:
I bought this in June when it became available in the Daily Deals – it was a bit of a shot in the dark, since I’m not a big fantasy reader, but the blurb sounded intriguing:
An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological startup go to war in order to prevent the world from tearing itself. To further complicate things, each of the groups’ most promising followers (Patricia, a brilliant witch and Laurence, an engineering “wunderkind”) may just be in love with each other.
As the battle between magic and science wages in San Francisco against the backdrop of international chaos, Laurence and Patricia are forced to choose sides. But their choices will determine the fate of the planet and all mankind.
In a fashion unique to Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky offers a humorous and, at times, heart-breaking exploration of growing up extraordinary in world filled with cruelty, scientific ingenuity, and magic.
The story actually starts when Patricia is a child; she discovers she can talk to animals when she finds an injured bird and agrees to take it to the Parliament of Birds, deep in the forest, to have its wing fixed. There she is interrogated by the birds and asked the Endless Question:
“Umm,” said Patricia. “Is the Endless Question going to take a long time? Because I bet my mom and dad are worried about me.”
The question is moot because shortly afterward Patricia finds herself being carried out of the woods by her father; her parents and the neighbors have been searching for her. Later on, Patricia half-forgets the incident even happened, and questions whether it was a dream. She loses, for the time being, her ability to communicate with animals.
In middle school, Patricia forms a tentative friendship with Laurence, who is the “brain” to her “heart” – he’s all about the technology, she’s all about the magic. What they both are is terribly picked on, to a degree that felt like it was supposed to be comically absurd, but it kind of wasn’t funny? It was honestly upsetting to read about.
The tone of the earlier part of the book feels different from the later part, perhaps reflecting the childish POVs of Patricia and Laurence (though the story is told in the third person). There is a broad, cartoonish quality to the childrens’ schoolmates, and to their families, as well. Laurence is the only child of unremarkable, meek and underachieving parents who accept his friendship with Patricia under the conceit that she is helping nerdy Laurence get outside and get exercise.
Patricia’s parents are the opposite – high-achieving, brittle and more interested in their professional lives than their family (“…the sort of people who could be in a good mood and angry at almost the same time”). They favor her older sister Roberta, who is also more popular at school in spite of the fact that she appears to be a sociopath (she tortures animals when she’s not torturing Patricia).
Into Laurence and Patricia’s lives comes Theodolphus Rose, in the guise of a school guidance counselor. He is actually a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins, and he has focused his professional attentions on the children. Theodolphus has had a vision that Laurence and Patricia will bring about the end of the world, and has decided they must be stopped, in spite of the Order’s ban on killing minors.
His first attempt, at the local mall, is thwarted (and he’s subsequently poisoned by the Order for trying to break the no-killing-kids directive). He then gets a job as their school counselor, after the previous counselor is mysteriously killed. Theodolphus sets about trying to convince Patricia to kill Laurence (presumably interrupting the envisioned apocalypse while skirting the tweenicide rules).
Theodolphus is mostly played for dark laughs, but he’s kind of an odd character – we never learn more about the Nameless Order of Assassins, and when he shows up later parts of book (which happens twice), his role doesn’t feel significant enough to warrant the inclusion. He’s a bad guy, but maybe trying to do a good thing (in preventing the world from ending)? I don’t know; it was never quite clear to me.
Theodolphus does, in his guidance counselor guise, inadvertently set events in motion that result in Laurence and Patricia eventually escaping their miserable lives: Laurence to the tech high school he has longed for, and Patricia to a school for witches.
The two don’t meet again for 10 years, when they are both living in San Francisco. Patricia is working with a collective of witches and Laurence is working on a top-secret scientific project to create a wormhole to another inhabitable planet. Earth is not doing so well (wars and environmental disasters abound), and the project, called the Ten Percent Project and headed and funded by a tech investor named Milton Dirth, is considered a last-ditch attempt to save humanity (well, some of it) if things continue to go south. Laurence has a smart and beautiful girlfriend named Serafina but he constantly sabotages the relationship because he still feels like the middle-school geek who was constantly being thrown into dumpsters by the cool kids.
When Laurence and Patricia meet again, there’s no instant connection; rather their relationship initially falls into a pattern that it followed 10 years before, one where Patricia is a lot more accepting of Laurence than he is of her. This made me dislike Laurence at times, because Patricia is really quite awesome and he often acts like the unpopular kid who is glad to have a more unpopular kid to hang around with, but would ditch her in a heartbeat for acceptance. It’s only when Patricia performs magic that restores one of his Ten Percent teammates from…somewhere, some weird dimension where she was accidentally sent, that Laurence finally begins to appreciate Patricia for who she is and what she has to offer.
Patricia has never lost her sensitivity and innate kindness, despite becoming a powerful witch. In fact, the other witches of her collective often accuse her of “aggrandizement”, which seems to cover any acts of good (like magically reducing the viral load of an AIDS-stricken friend) or magic that’s not approved by the group as a whole. I was never clear on whether the reader was supposed to think Patricia *was* guilty of “aggrandizement” – I could see it being a problem for witches and the magical community in general, particularly if they wanted to keep their activities somewhat under the radar, to have a witch going around willy-nilly performing magic on civilians. But, perhaps because of my fondness for Patricia, I usually felt that the other witches were being unfair and ungenerous to her.
Some books work better taken as a whole rather than the sum of their parts – All the Birds in the Sky was one of those for me. Plotwise, it felt like a bit of a mess. Theodolphus is an example of this – as I said, he just kind of pops up a few times, and while the role he plays in the story is somewhat significant, at least early on, he’s not developed and I’m not sure what the point of him as a character was. Really, none of the secondary characters are very developed, which, to be fair, may have been a deliberate choice on the author’s part. They’re more often a collection of extreme traits – seemingly with humorous intent (though again, the humor didn’t always work for me – case in point, Patricia’s creepy, animal-abusing sister Roberta). The reviews I read of this book all mentioned how funny it was – and it *is* funny, but the humor is odd and off-kilter, not LOL-style.
As the story becomes increasingly dark and dystopian, Laurence and Patricia are pulled apart and forced into a show-down: the big magic vs. science face-off. I didn’t really think either side was exactly righteous – both have end-game plans that invoke a sort of “destroy-the-village-to-save-the-village” strategy. Their only difference is in what each consider “the village” – mankind or Earth.
The ending is rather sweetly hopeful, which I appreciated, though you kind of have to forget about all the destruction that preceded it to feel it’s earned. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but then, All the Birds in the Sky often didn’t make a lot of sense to me. But I liked it. I liked the writing, and the weirdness, and Laurence (yes, I even did end up liking Laurence) and especially Patricia. I liked the reappearance of the sentient computer Laurence was trying to create in middle school, and its relationship to the “caddy”, the new must-have device that appears to be a cross between a turbo-charged smartphone and an oracle. I should have figured out what was going on there earlier, but I thought it was very clever when it was revealed.
My grade for All the Birds in the Sky is a B+, and I’ll be seeking out more of the author’s work.