All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
This is a book I wanted to like a lot more than I actually did. I heard loads of good things and I’ve always really liked Anders’ writing on i09, but ultimately this was a book I found more irritating than anything else.
Patricia is a strange young woman with a sadistic older sister and workaholic parents who stumbles across a strange destiny as a witch, able to talk to animals and commune with ancient spirits. Meanwhile, Laurence is a technological genius who is ruthlessly bullied at school, desperate to escape the humdrum world within which he is trapped. Although both in very different ways, Patricia and Laurence are outsiders and find themselves drawn to each other. This story jumps from childhood to adulthood as the two explore through their relationship the contradictions, and perhaps symbiosis, of science and magic.
I’m a huge huge fan of stories which merge science fiction and magic but despite that it is very rarely done well. China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books would be an example of this done right. All the Birds in the Sky ends up making many of the same mistakes as other authors and in the end winds up mostly being an inferior take on Neil Gaiman. The premise is good, but the whole thing can just get insufferably twee. I know Anders used to run a leading science fiction and pop culture website, but some of the references are so annoying. There’s a Doctor Who ‘timey-wimey’ joke that made me want to tear out my own eyes with rage. I don’t mind pop culture references, but we end up with the classic problem of characters who are constantly busy and talented and always working but are somehow also pop culture literate enough to drop Firefly references at the drop of a hat.
By far the best chapters of the book are the earlier ones, where we first meet Patricia and Laurence as kids. There’s something hugely sweet and endearing about a future witch and future mad scientist awkwardly building a friendship, but the switch to an adult perspective shatters this. I wonder if keeping the protagonists as children would have made a better story because adult Patricia and Laurence are never anywhere near as engaging as angry teenager Patricia and Laurence. The pacing veers widely off track towards the end; the early chapters are a bit slower but give us time to appreciate the characters and little, charming moments which allow us to form a connection to the characters. Events move so ridiculously quickly in the final quarter of the book that it’s difficult to form a real connection to any of it. People complain, myself included, about bloated genre fiction, but there’s a reason that genre fiction tends to be longer than other novels and that is the time needed to give to good worldbuilding. All the Birds in the Sky essentially abandons world building in the pursuit of character and theme; that’s fine, lots of great genre writing does that, think of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but the characters are not particularly interesting and the themes muddled.
The frustrating thing is that there are moments of greatness. Theodolphus Rose, a precognitive assassin sent to kill Patricia and Laurence as children, is incredibly funny and interesting too, but this promising storyline just sort of fizzles out as the novel progresses. There’s something almost Roald Dahl-esque about the awful childhoods of Patricia and Laurence, with a balance between genuine horror at what they’re going through and a dark comedy at just how nasty it gets.
All the Birds in the Sky is an ambitious novel with lots of great ideas which simply fails to coalesce into anything particularly special. As I said at the top I really wanted to like it, but I couldn’t force myself to. I’m still going to keep an eye on Anders though, there’s clearly potential here.