Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Series

Here’s my last instalment of the Reading the Hugos series for this year. I’ve done better than ever before in this category but disclaimer right here: I didn’t even get close to reading all the books in all the nominated series.

For my thoughts and rankings (currently) of the other categories, go here:

This is probably the toughest category for me (and many others) to judge. While a Best Novel or Lodestar nomination may happen for book two or three in a trilogy, it rarely happens for part 12 of a long-running series. Which is the entire reason this category exists! So that book series can be honored even when their first book(s) didn’t garner a lot of acclaim or weren’t as well known yet. Sometimes the tale grows with the telling, sometimes it’s only after a few books that characters really get to shine, and sometimes a trilogy in its entirety is just so much more than the sum of its parts.

The Finalists for Best Series

I’ve been gushing about The Winternight Trilogy ever since the first book came out. While the first is still my favorite, simply because its fairy tale vibe and atmosphere is so dear to my heart, I can’t deny that Arden actually got better with every book. The Winter of the Witch was a worthy and beautiful ending to a pretty epic story. I loved it to pieces, I nominated the books for Best Novel every year, so it would warm my heart to see the trilogy as a whole take home a Hugo. While the first book could be read as a standalone, the trilogy definitely tells a larger tale that is well worth exploring. Full of atmosphere, great multi-layered characters, and Russian history, it’s the perfect trilogy for reading on a winter night.

I started The Wormwood Trilogy from scratch and was very impressed with the first book. Yes, the reviews are right – it is a confusing book, jumping between different timelines, different levels of existence and dealing with a lot of fresh ideas. Kaaro is a former thief who now works for a special branch of the government as an interrogator. It’s not the kind of interrogation you might think, though. Kaaro is also a sensitive – one of the people who got some sort of mind reading powers from the alien biodome around which Rosewater is built – so he can just go into a prisoner’s mind and have them spill the beans on whatever the government wants to know. And although that’s already a lot, there’s even more to discover in this book. It’s a wild ride with crazy ideas and while I definitely struggled to keep the timeline straight in my head, it was a great experience.

Emma Newman’s Planetfall surprised me in many ways. I had only read her previous fairy-inspired series and didn’t much like it. Not only did Newman create a fantastic science fictional world here but her writing is also just phenomenal There was not a single second in the first book, Planetfall, where I was bored. Renata lives on the one and only space colony on a distant planet. She and others followed Lee Suh-Min to this place in order to find God. However, Renata and the Ringmaster Mack have a secret, one that involves the colony’s religious ceremonies… When a stranger arrives at the colony, things are put into motion and Ren’s many secrets are revealed over the course of this novel. This was exciting, filled with awesome ideas about life on a different planet, and Ren is one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about. It’s hard to say much without spoiling but just do yourself the favor and pick this book up!

Although the cover screams that this isnot for me, I did give InCryptid by Seanan McGuire a try. After all, I quite like her October Daye series, so why not try her other urban fantasy? Well, now I know why. Because of all the things I dislike in books, McGuire picked most of them and threw them all together. A super-perfect heroine, a plot that doesn’t start until a third of the book is over, and that third being filled with info dumps and mentions of how great the heroine is. I hated Verity from the get go because I just don’t like Mary Sues without nuance or flaws, and a girl shooting someone while wearing heels doesn’t impress me. When she does something intolerably stupid (although she is supposed to be so perfect), that was it for me. The final nail in the coffin was the forced love interest that is the opposite of organic and feels like it was just thrown in there because you have to have romance in your urban fantasy. As I didn’t care for anything in this book, I finally DNFd it at 34%. This book is the definition of Not My Thing.

When I started reading Luna by Ian McDonald, I knew very soon that I wouldn’t be able to be super fair to this book. It can be summed up as a Mafia story set on the moon – and how cool is that? – which puts it in the uncomfortable position of being compared in my mind to Jade City by Fonda Lee. I know that’s not fair and I know I should keep those books separate in my head but I am only human and that’s just how my brain works.
Mind you, although it’s tough for any book to be as great as Jade City, I still enjoyed this one. I didn’t think the character work was quite as well done, but as to not be even more unfair, I tried to focus on the worldbuilding. This is science fiction about a society living on the moon, ruled by the Five Dragons (old families running big corporations). There is no criminal law, only contracts. If you can’t pay for air, well, that’s too bad. The plot had massive pacing problems (or just… non-existence problems) but the writing was great and the ending had me reading with my mouth gaping open. Not my favorite but I will continue the series someday.

The series I feel most uncomfortable ranking is The Expanse. I read the first book shortly after it came out but I just haven’t kept up with the series. We are currently at seven volumes, so even if I had managed to read Caliban’s War in time, I wouldn’t have been able to judge the series fairly. My hope is that it will be nominated again in a few years and I’ll have caught up by then. As long as the series is still ongoing, there’s still hope. And I don’t have to feel too bad for ranking it based solely on its first volume.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Katherine Arden – The Winternight Trilogy
  2. Emma Newman – Planetfall
  3. Tade Thompson – The Wormwood Trilogy
  4. The Expanse
  5. The Luna Trilogy
  6. No Award
  7. Seanan McGuire – InCryptid

As mentioned above, I took the next best approach to reading all the books in all the nominated series, which is to at least read the first volume in each series and continue on with those that interested me the most – if the first book doesn’t capture my attention enough for me to want the second book, then the series will proably not be my top choice. Even if the series in general gets better after book 3 or 5 or whatever, I’m not going to like it as much as a series that was great right from the start. At least that’s my reasoning. I also hate when people justify long series by saying things like “Oh, it really gets going around volume 4”. Why do I have to force myself through three mediocre or even bad books to get to the fun part? Shouldn’t the series have started with the fun part?

That’s why I only read the first book in the InCryptid series and I won’t be reading another book of that series even if it inevitably gets nominated again. I am going to vote for No Award in my sixth slot because, try as I might, I don’t see any reason why this could be deserving of an award. Considering the other finalists, this book just shouldn’t be here. It offers no original ideas, the writing is the laziest version of Urban Fantasy trope-land, the protagonist is plain bad, and the plot didn’t promise anything new. Yeah… I really hated it. But even apart from my personal taste, I think it is objectively not a great book that shouldn’t be in the company of these other finalists.
Luna and the Expanse might still switch places on my ballot. It’s been so long since I read Leviathan Wakes. On the other hand, Luna was the last book I read. I enjoyed both but one was definitely more fun and one had more ambitious science-fictional ideas. And I don’t know how either of their sequels handle characters and world building, so I’m pretty much just ranking them by gut feeling.
As for Emma Newman and Tade Thompson, both first books were utterly stunning, so I definitely need a second one to make a final decision on where to rank them. Unfortunately, time is  running out. I definitely plan to finish both these series, but when I had to decide on which one to continue first, Planetfall won. So this, and this alone, is the reason I am ranking it above Rosewater (for now). I am going to start the sequels for both of these books today and I may still finish them before voting closes. But with the decision making power I have at my disposal at this moment, this is where they go on my ballot.

And this is it for my Reading the Hugos series. I’m sad I didn’t get to the finalists for the Astounding Award or Best Related Work. I read half of the Astounding finalists but I definitely won’t catch up on the rest before Hugo voting is over. And, to be quite honest, I look forward to just reading whatever I want again.

Reading the Hugo finalists has been incredibly rewarding and led me to discover some truly fantastic books and probably even new favorite authors. But now that I’m done, I feel relieved that I can pick up a book by mood and catch up on 2020 releases. There’s an entire Murderbot novel waiting for me! And I got a gorgeous hardcover edition of Octavia Butler’s Parable duology that wants to be read.

I will be nominating and voting in the Hugo Awards again next year. And if everything works out well, I may even do another Reading the Hugos series. 🙂

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novel

And here it is. The big one. The Hugo for Best Novel is the one I’m always most excited for, even though the other categories offer plenty of amazing stories.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

Just like last year, I had already read four of the six finalists for Best Novel when they were announced. Catching up on the final two was easy enough.
In general, I really like this ballot. There is one book that I personally disliked but as a representation of what was most talked about and got the most acclaim from fans last year, it definitely deserves its spot on the list. Even the Seanan McGuire (I’m biased because her fans nominate everything as long as it’s written by her) was a pretty good book, although I would have preferred to see something different in its spot, like Black Leopard, Red Wolf (which I’m still in the middle of but which would so deserve to be nominated).

The Finalists for Best Novel

Oh man, this is so hard! My top two spots are fairly easy but having to rank one above the other makes it a lot more difficult. I’m talking about A Memory Called Empire and The Light Brigade, of course. Both of these books blew my mind, although in very different ways. But only one of them also got me hooked emotionally, so I’m going with that one as my top choice.

A Memory Called Empire is a debut novel (all the more impressive) that has so many layers, it’s hard to pick a favorite bit. It’s about a space empire and one little space station that’s still independent. That station’s embassador has died and so Mahit Dzmare is sent to the capital as his replacement. It turns out he’s been murdered and Mahit wants to find out why and by whom. So far for the basic plot, but there’s so much more to discover. The cultural aspects, the technology, the relationships between the multi-layered characters, the language conventions, I just loved everything about this book. And then it’s well-written too! I can’t wait for the sequel to come out because this is such an immersive world with fresh ideas by a great storyteller.

Close on its heels is The Light Brigade, the first fiction I’ve read by Kameron Hurley. And what a gorgeous mind-fuck it was! I love stories that are also puzzles and this is a perfect example. It’s a military sci-fi novel very much in the vein of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but clearly in conversation with the MilSF that came before. Dietz goes through gruelling military training, becomes a soldier and jumps via super cool technology to fight on Earth, on Mars, wherever the supervisors send them. But something’s not right. Dietz ends up returning from missions nobody has heard of or is sent on missions that don’t have anything to do with what the briefing was about…
There are a lot of things to figure out in this book and you definitely have to keep track of what’s going on when and where. But it is so rewarding and the ending was so fantastic that I couldn’t help but love it. The only reason this goes below Arkady Martine’s book on my ballot is that I wasn’t as emotionally involved with the characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book whose idea impresses me more than its execution. It’s all there, all the little things I love best about books and stories. The promise of adventure and magic and secret worlds behind doors. What we get is half a novel about a passive protagonist doing pretty much nothing. Then come some snippets of a book within a book that were brilliant, and a slightly more exciting third act to finish things up. So it’s a difficult book to rate. I loved some aspects of it so very much, I thought others were trying hard to achieve something they couldn’t – the lyrical language didn’t feel natural, it felt like Harrow pondered over every word, trying super hard to make it sound poetic. And January just isn’t a very good protagonist because she is so bland and passive and takes ages to become interesting. But once the story gets going, it’spretty great. And as for the book within the book – I absolutely adored it and would have gladly read 500 more pages of it. Also, this novel actually grew fonder in my memory the longer it’s been since I read it. I am totally undecided where to put it so it goes somwehere in the middle.

Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame is a pretty ambitious work with a great premise. Two engineered twins – one with a gift for language, the other a math prodigy – are separated as children to grow up in different families. The two of them combined embody the Doctrine of Ethos, something that basically gives them control over the world. But all Roger and Dodger want is friendship. They can communicate sort of telepathically and spend their lives trying to get together and being separated again.
With an overdrawn, slightly ridiculous villain and sloppy world building, this book still offered characters I rooted for and a plot that kept me turning the pages. Sure, there’s a lot of handwaving going on, none of the magic/science is ever explained or makes much sense, but there are great ideas here. It’s also a book of missed opportunities when it comes to the writing style and the anticlimactic ending. But overall, I enjoyed reading it. I probably wouldn’t give it an award but I’d recommend it to a friend.
ETA: I just had a thought when I was looking at the novella and series ballot and now I can’t let go of it. Seanan McGuire is so damn prolific, she publishes like 5 things every year. If she had spent more time on this one novel and not continued her various series in 2019, this could have been an entirely different beast! There’s so much potential here that it could have been a clear winner. But I guess if you churn out several full-length novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories in seven different universes, you just don’t have the time to spend on re-writes or thinking every aspect of your novel through. Maybe, one day, I’ll get my wish and see what McGuire really is capable of.

I was so excited for The City in the Middle of the Night because Anders’ first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, was right up my alley. She took quite a different route in this SF novel, set on a tidally locked planet that can only be inhabited by humans on a small strip of land between night and day. And while I really liked the book by the end, it took a long time for me to get into it. And I thought that Anders tackled maybe a few too many themes for one novel. She executed some of them brilliantly, others not so much, but I wanted just a bit more. I also didn’t connect with the characters for a long time. Again, by the ending, I was all in it, but that doesn’t change that I struggled during the start of this book. And that’s why it’s so hard to rank. On a pure enjoyment level, this book goes below Middlegame. On an ideas and skill level, it is above Middlegame. Where McGuire has only a little to say about humanity as such, Anders brings in the big guns, holds up a mirror to society and makes me think!

I’m one of the three people in the world who hated Gideon the Ninth. You guys, I like the idea of “lesbian necromancers in space” as much as the next person, but when I don’t get what I’m promised I get pissy. Instead of lesbian necromancers in space, I got 50 characters who aren’t distinguishable from each other, in a locked castle, sometimes doing some cool magic shit, sometimes doing cool sword shit (but nut nearly enough of either). Gideon may be a lesbian but other than her remarks about other women’s sexiness, this has no bearing on the plot. Which is also a mess, by the way. This book didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up so it just became a bit of everything but none of it well. Other than Gideon and Harrow, nobody had personality (I dare you to tell me any of the other House’s names or personality traits), the plot jumped from one thing to the next, never finding its focus. The end battle went on waaaaay too long. But the action scenes involving magic were pretty cool, as were the puzzles Gideon and Harrow have to solve. Is that really enough for an award? For me, no. It’s a mess that’s more obsessed with its own aesthetics than with good storytelling

My ballot (probably)

  1. Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire
  2. Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade
  3. Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January
  4. Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  5. Seanan McGuire – Middlegame
  6. Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

I will most likely change spots 3 through 5 a lot in the next few weeks. I’m already struggling with my own ratings and how to decide which book is more deserving of an award than the others.

The top two books are easy. They did what they set out to do so well and they entertained and engaged me on many levels – what more can I want, really?
But then come the books that had one or two things going for them but didn’t do so well in other aspects. Now how do I decide whether a book that was more fun but maybe less accomplished should get an award rather than a book that takes risks but is a bit more of a struggle to read? I may have posted my ballot here for you to see but I very much doubt it’s going to look exactly like this when I hit that save button before voting closes.

Up next week: Best Graphic Story

Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night

I have been looking forward to this book ever since it came out early last year. Now that it’s a finalist for the Hugo Award, I finally picked it up. It took me a lot longer than expected and it didn’t grab me as much as Anders’ debut novel did but – like most of the other finalists – it is a worthy entry in this year’s shortlist.

THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
by Charlie Jane Anders

Published: Tor, 2019
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: This manuscript has been translated from the original Xiosphanti and Argelan into Peak English, which as Jthkyklakno points out [ref. 2327.288] has become “the language which everyone reads, but nobody speaks,” across several worlds and spacenodes.

“If you control our sleep, then you can own our dreams… And from there, it’s easy to control our entire lives.”
Set on a planet that has fully definitive, never-changing zones of day and night, with ensuing extreme climates of endless, frigid darkness and blinding, relentless light, humankind has somehow continued apace — though the perils outside the built cities are rife with danger as much as the streets below.
But in a world where time means only what the ruling government proclaims, and the levels of light available are artificially imposed to great consequence, lost souls and disappeared bodies are shadow-bound and savage, and as common as grains of sand. And one such pariah, sacrificed to the night, but borne up by time and a mysterious bond with an enigmatic beast, will rise to take on the entire planet–before it can crumble beneath the weight of human existence.

This is the story of a tidally-locked planet and the humans trying to survive on it. Told through Sophie and Mouth’s point of view, we get to see the strictly ruled city of Xiosphant – where life is completely dominated by time and being seen outside after shutters up is a crime – and we get to see the city of Argelan where time doesn’t matter and everybody lives by their own rhythm. But the planet January wasn’t empty when humans decided to colonize it many years ago… there are several native species living here, and other than the humans, they do so in harmony with the planet’s harsh nature.

The story begins with Sophie and her best friend Bianca, who live by the strict Xiosphanti rules but dream of revolution. Wouldn’t it be great if work could be divided more fairly among people? If missing curfew didn’t bring harsh punishment? If life could be a little more fun and a little less serious? Well, dreaming about these things is easy. When Sophie takes the blame for a petty crime however, she is sentenced to death outside the city walls. As one side of the planet exists in eternal night – and the terrible cold that comes with it, this sentence usually doesn’t take very long. But Sophie meets one of the native creatures, something the humans call “crocodiles” although they have nothing in common with actual crocodiles, and her life is saved.

Having survived, she now lives in secret with people she can trust, and can only watch her former best friend from afar, yearning for their friendship, hoping to just be able to tell Bianca that she’s still alive. But it isn’t until Bianca falls for a travelling trader’s scheme that Sophie shows up in her life again.
That travelling trader is Mouth who, along with her group of colleagues, transports goods from Xiosphant to Argelo and vice versa. But she also has her own agenda. As her own culture has been wiped out completely, she is desperate for an old artifact that is supposed to be in the Xiosphant palace. And she’s willing to go through Bianca to get it. But things don’t turn out as planned of course and Mouth, as well as Sophie and Bianca, soon make their way to Argelo and get to see a whole different side of this planet… and of each other.

Anders doesn’t spend much time setting up her world at first. So I felt quite lost for a while, not understanding either Xiosphanti culture or how life worked exactly in the small strip of January where night and day meet. There is mention of lightsickness, of how cold the night is, how the currency is actually a lot of sub-currencies (one for food, one for housing, etc.) and how important the rules of timefulness are. But there’s no bigger picture and no mention of other cities existing until later in the story. Only when we met Mouth did I realize that travel on this planet was possible – if rather difficult – and that a second city existed where humans lived. I don’t know if I missed that somewhere in the text or if it really wasn’t mentioned before but to me, it came pretty much out of nowhere.

Once I had figured out the set up and some of the world building, however, I really liked this book. But I liked it in a scientific kind of way, if you know what I mean. I appreciated the ideas, I loved the message and how it was conveyed, but I was only emotionally engaged a few times during certain scenes rather than throughout the whole book. Many things left me rather cold emotionally while I could still look at them with interest from an ideas standpoint.
For example, there are several key relationships in this book. The first one is between Sophie and Bianca. Sophie may feel more than just friendship for Bianca but Xiosphant is apparently homophobic, judging from Sophie’s hesitance to even admit to herself that she may be in love with another girl. When these two reunite after Bianca thought Sophie dead for years, their relationship is frayed to say the least and one sublot is them trying to regain that former trust, to become best friends once more. But each of them has changed in the meantime and they may not even want the same things anymore. Or be willing to make the same sacrifices.
The second intriguing relationship is between Mouth and… well, everyone really. There is the dynamic between Mouth and her sleep mate Alyssa. They are friends who banter a lot, there is a kind of master and apprentice thing going on there, but the more Mouth opens up about her lost culture – the nomad tribe that called themselves the Citizens – and how she desperately wants it to survive somehow, the more this dynamic shifts. Mouth becomes more vulnerable, Alyssa asserts herself more. And all of that is shown in small moments, in key scenes, through dialogue or action. I found it quite impressive how many nuances of friendship and love Anders managed to put on the page and without the slightest bit of info dumping. You read about these people and you just know that something has changed. You don’t have to be told specifically.

And as you can see, there were certain parts of the story that did get to me. First and foremost Sophie’s connection to the Gelet – the “crocodiles” – and how others immediately want to abuse it. Secondly, Sophie and Bianca’s relationship and Bianca as a person in general brought me close to tears on occasion. It didn’t quite make up for the long stretches of story where I didn’t much care but I was really impressed that these characters I thought I didn’t care about suddenly made me that angry.
This is also the story of an attempted revolution and all the messy shit that comes with that. Turns out ruling is hard and sometimes you accidentally sell your soul on the way to doing good. And sometimes what you think is good isn’t good for everyone. That’s all I can say without spoiling anything. Let’s just say that I found the characters believable in their actions and the consequences of those actions educational.

There was also something else that bothered me but I can’t quite put my finger on it. To me, it felt like while this book has a core theme and explores many other adjacent themes – colonialism, living with vs. opposed to nature, how to govern a society, etc – there were too many ideas for this one story. The differences between the cities of Xiosphant and Argelo, for example, were so crass they were almost caricatures. And there are frequent mentions of the Mothership, who contributed to it, what riots happened on it, and so on. So it’s a world rich in history but I never felt I got enough of it. Most of that history has little bearing on the plot but I couldn’t help but want to learn more. That’s super nitpicky and I don’t even know why it bothered me. It’s like I’m complaining that Charlie Jane Anders created a world that’s too interesting to just leave it at this one story.

My lack of emotional connection may also be more my own fault as the author’s. I took quite a while to finish this book, sometimes reading only one short chapter, other times reading a whole chunk of the book – and of course, the more I read in one sitting, the more engaged I was. So maybe if I’d just read this a bit faster with fewer breaks, I would have loved it more. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t love it but as I have to compare it to the other Best Novel finalists that are up for the Hugo Award, personal enjoyment is my number one reason for ranking one book above the other. And while this one got better and better toward the end, I think the beginning was too weak for a truly great rating. There were some nice surprises and twists along the way, I really enjoyed how the story ended, even though many plot strings are left dangling, but as it took so long to get going and there were parts that I didn’t enjoy all that much, this will end up somewhere in the middle of my ballot.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

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.

divider1

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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