All the Birds in the Sky Charms: A Review

All the Birds in the Sky (2016)
Written by: Charlie Jane Anders
Genre: Speculative
Pages: 313 (Hardback)
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates

Why I Chose It: Since the book is shelved in the fiction section, I know that I must have walked past it multiple times in my weekly Barnes & Noble wanderings. I don’t remember ever picking it up, because the cover and the title didn’t grab my attention or give me a good idea of what the book is about. All the Birds in the Sky came on my radar when it was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Since I enjoy the more literary speculative fiction and stories with magic, I volunteered to write the review.

The premise:

From the former editor-in-chief of io9.com, a stunning Hugo and Nebula Award short-listed novel about the end of the world—and the beginning of our future.

An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological startup go war as 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.

Spoilers: A few mild spoilers ahead.


Discussion: This book’s biggest strength is the likeability of its two main characters, Patricia and Laurence. From the moment that I met Patricia as a six-year-old girl learning that she can talk to birds and Laurence as a boy who runs away from home to attend a rocket launch, I was rooting for these people. I sympathized with them as they befriended each other as lonely middle school kids. In the second half of the book, which skips ahead to the characters’ early twenties, Patricia uses magic to save drug addicts, thwart serial killers, and cure food poisoning, and Laurence is a computer genius who is afraid of romantic relationships. They’re both former dorks turned hipsters, but it’s charming instead of obnoxious. I wanted to see Patricia and Laurence happy and successful, and I genuinely cared about what happened to them.

I also enjoyed the book’s quirky sense of humor.  I didn’t roll on the floor laughing, but I was amused and entertained.  An assassin gets banned for life from the Cheesecake Factory after thrashing and foaming at the mouth from eating a poisoned large chocolate brownie sundae. In one scene, Patricia “spent a couple of hours trying to compose a letter to the Parks Department on behalf of some gophers whose burrow was being disturbed, pointlessly, by some inept landscaping in Golden Gate Park. It took a lot of concentration to translate from gopher language into bureaucratese” (p.140).

Anders absolutely nails the horrible experience of being an outcast in middle school. Many authors portray high school as the worst part of adolescence but in my opinion and life experience, it is middle school that is the absolute worst. In high school, you can see the light of the end of the tunnel and once everyone starts applying to college, being a nerd becomes an enviable trait. But if I had to choose between being sent to prison or going back to seventh grade, I would pick prison. Patricia’s classmates accuse her of performing satanic rituals, and Laurence is regularly shoved into dumpsters and urinals. Patricia’s sister is a cruel bully and her parents are scary overachievers. Laurence’s parents are clueless and obsessed with making him go outside instead of working on his computer. Patricia and Laurence only become friends because he pays her to tell his parents that they’re hanging out in nature so he can avoid camping trips. They’re sad, vulnerable kids trying to endure an absolutely miserable time in their lives. Plus their guidance counselor is actually a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins who is trying to ruin their lives in order to prevent them from playing a role in the future war between science and magic.

Laurence and Patricia’s young adulthood is taking place in the not-so-distant future, given that San Francisco is still full of hipster bars and computer geeks. The Earth is in grave danger from climate change, and both Laurence’s group of scientists and Patricia’s coven of witches are trying to save the world. It’s not entirely accurate to describe the book’s central conflict as a battle between science and magic because it is more of a matter of conflicting philosophies. The scientists believe that humanity is the only part of Earth worth saving and they’re desperately trying to find a way off the planet. The witches believe in the value of all creatures and saving the Earth itself, even if it is at the expense of humans. It’s more interesting than a clash between scientists and witches, and I wish Anders had delved more deeply into the rival philosophies.

My main criticism of the book is that it’s just not long enough. The story of Laurence and Patricia’s middle school years takes up 117 pages. This leaves a little less than 200 pages for them to reconnect as adults, catch up on what has happened during the last ten years, set up the scientist and witch factions, have Patricia and Laurence start falling for each other, and then hit the Earth with climate change disasters. It’s enough material for a trilogy. The secondary characters suffer most from the time crunch. I had a hard time keeping up with Laurence’s scientist friends because they were too generic. I didn’t care about what happened to Patricia’s family because the last time I encountered them, they were being borderline abusive jerks to her and there was no scene of her forgiving them as an adult. Laurence and Patricia get one love scene before the world falls to pieces. I waited the entire book for these two to hook up and I felt cheated when they only got to be utterly happy together for six pages.

In conclusion: I did thoroughly enjoy the book and its characters and I would recommend it. However, I do feel like Charlie Jane Anders is getting a little too much credit for blending science fiction and fantasy, because All the Birds in the Sky is hardly the first book to do so. I think there is a snobbish tendency to believe that any book that is categorized as “literary fiction,” must be better than a book that is classified as “science fiction” or “fantasy.” I was certainly guilty of thinking this way before I started reading more genre fiction. All the Birds in the Sky should be a serious contender for Hugo and Nebula Awards based on its merits, but it’s not quite as unique and innovative as some critics have claimed.

1 Comment

  • Shara White April 27, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    It’s been a LONG time since I read this, as I read it shortly after it came out. I remember feeling the ending was rather rushed. I loved the time spent on childhood, but wanted more time on them as adults, especially as a couple. I want to say I heard there might be a sequel…. ?

    Reply

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