Charlie Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky

This was one of my most eagerly awaited books of the year. Buzz had been building up last summer already, the cover is gorgeous, and I liked Charlie Jane Anders’ writing on io9. Instead of doing what I usually do (buying all the books, then leaving most of them unread for way too long), I dove right in, without really knowing where the book might go. It turned out to be wonderful, touching, a combination of science and magic.

all the birds in the skyALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY
by Charlie Jane Anders

Published by: Tor, 2016
Ebook: 320 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When Patricia was six years old, she found a wounded bird.

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who’s working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world’s ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together–to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.

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All the Birds in the Sky follows Patricia and Laurence through their childhood and this was, at the same time, one of the hardest parts to read, as well as one of the most beautiful. Both children are outcasts in school, and despite (or because) of their differences, they become friends. At first, by necessity, because nobody else will have them, later because they grow fond of each other. Right from the start, the differences between them are also what makes them so interesting, and draws them to one another. Patricia is in touch with Nature, she talked to birds once, and was given a riddle by them. Laurence likes science, and gadgets, and builds his own machines from scrap material at a very young age. The juxtaposition of Nature and Science is central to this book, but it never feels heavy-handed. Anders never picks a side.

What Patricia and Laurence go through is heartbreaking. Their parents – so often absent in books about kids – were amazingly-written. They are fully fleshed out individuals and while we see the parents’ actions through the children’s eyes, they never come across as irredeemable or evil. They are also just people trying to do what’s best, and if that looks like pure cruelty to children, that’s just how the world works. I absolutely adored the portrayal of all characters but the parents struck me as particularly well done, simply because so few writers include the protagonists’ family in any meaningful way. To be fair, viewed through Laurence and Patrcia’s eyes, the parents are quite horrible and only add to their children’s alrady difficult childhoods. In Patricia’s case, even the sister, Roberta, likes nothing more than make her sister’s life painful.

Terrible high school experience behind them, Patricia and Laurence have gone their separate ways for spoilery reasons. Laurence goes on to be hailed as a science wunderkind, Patricia goes to Eltisley Maze (American Hogwarts), and both are trying to make the world a better place, using their own methods and talents. Again, as obvious as the Magic vs. Science theme may be, the two apparent opposites mesh really well and the effortless coexistence of the two is never jarring. This story shows that there can be both, that you can love magic and science, that you can want a wand and a space ship.

all the birds in the sky background

My favorite part was easily the meandering relationship between Patricia and Laurence, the emotional core of the book. When they meet again,  you expect worlds to collide. They have grown into themselves, they figured out what kind of people they are, and just because they were once childhood friends, doesn’t mean they may like who the other has become. But what grows between them is one of the best, most beautiful love stories I have ever read. It all boils down to finding someone who lets you be yourself and loves you anyway.

Laurence and Patricia hadn’t started dating after that or anything—they’d just hung out. All the time. Way more time than Laurence had ever spent with Serafina, because every date with Serafina had to be perfect, and he’d always worried about being clingy. He and Patricia were just always grabbing dinner and coffee and late-night drinks, whenever Laurence could slip Milton’s leash. They were always cheating at foozeball, dancing at The EndUp with insomniac queers until five in the morning, bowling for cake, inventing elaborate drinking games for Terrence Malick movies, quoting Rutherford B. Hayes from memory, and building the weirdest kites they could coax into the sky over Kite Hill. They were always hand in hand.

All the Birds in the Sky has a lot of things to say about fitting in and about the fast world we live in. Whether it’s in throwaway remarks about the latest hipster brunch place or the newest tablet model, the story is firmly based on our times and then taken a little into the future. I thought the point about San Francisco being a hipster capital was hammered in a little hard, but not to the point where it took me out of the narrative. No matter where they are and who they’re surrounded by, Patricia and Laurence either still have a hard time fitting in or feel like impostors when they do find a group a friends. It’s a deeply understandable feeling that was portrayed beautifully.

I found out that Charlie Jane Anders has published a book before this but I am still impressed with her skill. The language is gorgeous, adapting to the character in focus. When a chapter deals with Patricia, everything is earthy and rich and green and growing. Switch to Laurence and it’s all about circuits and code, computer slang and science geekery. I found the prose wonderful, both flowy and fresh, and always hitting home when things went haywire.

I didn’t talk much about the plot on purpose. I knew next to nothing about the plot when I started reading and it was the most wonderful experience. Maybe Patricia’s witchy school days and the people she met during that time could have used a little more backstory, especially some intriguing side characters (looking at you, Ernesto). But overall, All the Birds in the Sky was a surprise favorite for me. A wild mix of genres, an emotional roller coaster, the story of two lives and how they’re intertwined through magic and science alike. I absolutely loved it!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent! I want more!

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Second opinions:

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3 thoughts on “Charlie Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky

  1. MyBookJacket says:

    This was really inexpensive here when it first came out. Somehow I didn’t want to pick it up just then. Mistake. Somehow it became popular and now it’s 8 times as much as it was!!!! I’ll still get it. But with birthday vouchers. Glad that it lived up to the hype.

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  2. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I am so surprised you thought the parents were a highlight! To me that was a weakness of the book and created some significant tonal dissonance: the parents are so Roald-Dahl-ian at the start of the book that it was hard for me to accept midway through that we were suddenly supposed to expect emotional nuance in Patricia’s relationship with them.

    I liked the book generally though! The parents were just an element that really took me out of the story.

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  3. Heather Hicks says:

    I thought the book was good, I wanted it to be better maybe, but I am not a writer so I am just giving a readers opinion. I thought the parents were a distraction but it didn’t take away to much of the book from me. I might have to re-read it again. Right now reading Snowflake River. It’s a fantasy read but you could mistake it as non fiction. It’s written that well! Author is Ben Eliahu, good read.

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