Charlie Jane Anders has written several science fiction and fantasy short stories plus a Lamda Literary Award-winning novel (The Choir Boy), but All the Birds in the Sky is her first speculative fiction novel. It’s a quirky, thoroughly absorbing story, and although I thought the first part was stronger than the second, I found it quite readable throughout—in fact, when I looked through it again to prepare for writing this review, I found myself rereading much of it because it drew me in all over again!
All the Birds in the Sky follows two main characters whose lives collide at a young age: a witch named Patricia and a technological genius named Laurence. It’s the story of how their lives intertwine beginning with their childhoods and resuming after the two meet again as adults.
Patricia discovered she had the ability to communicate with animals when she was only six years old. She sought to protect a sparrow with a broken wing, and after finding he could understand Patricia, the sparrow informed her this meant she was a witch. The bird instructed her to take him to the Parliament of Birds, but this congregation was concerned that the sparrow broke the rules by leading an ordinary human to them—and decided it was necessary to prove she was indeed a witch by making her answer the Endless Question: “Is a tree red?” Flummoxed by the riddle, Patricia barely had time to consider it before she was found and harshly punished by her parents, and it’s not until she’s older that she rediscovers how to speak with animals and learns about her witchcraft.
Laurence has always been gifted with technology, and even some rocket scientists found it impressive that he was able to make a two-second time machine at a young age. To his great chagrin, his parents were not so thrilled with his proclivity for computers and forced him to do activities involving nature, concerned that he was spending too much time indoors staring at screens. After he and Patricia literally ran into each other at school, Laurence learned that she loved these types of activities and convinced her to make up stories about all the amazing experiences they had in the great outdoors after they had actually been hanging out at the mall. Both social outcasts without anyone else to talk to, Patricia and Laurence became good friends until they were split apart by the plotting of their new school counselor: an assassin who foresaw that these two children would grow up to play central roles in a terrible battle between nature and technology.
All the Birds in the Sky is a unique book that covers a lot of ground, making it quite difficult to summarize. It’s largely about two people—one gifted at magic and the other gifted at science—and the impact they have on each other and the world, but it’s also about relationships: the longing for connection and the struggles to achieve it. There’s some ethical and philosophical discussion and problems caused by climate change. Plus, there are witches, scientists, conversations with animals, an AI, and an assassin. This may sound like a lot, and it is absolutely scattered and hard to describe, but it works. Although I did have some issues with it, All the Birds in the Sky is an extraordinarily readable, compelling, memorable story.
The earlier part focusing on Patricia and Laurence’s childhoods is more cohesive than the later part, and it balances between lighthearted and difficult situations. There are some fun moments, such as Patricia’s encounter with the bird who realizes she’s a witch, and there is a good dose of narrative humor, but their classmates are cruel and both are misunderstood by their parents. In particular, Patricia’s family is terrible: her parents lock in her room for extended periods of time as punishment and her sister deliberately tries to get her into trouble. Laurence also has a lot of problems that make him a sympathetic character, but he’s not as loyal to Patricia as she is to him so I found her easier to like during their childhood years, especially since she is compassionate through and through.
After the two are reunited as adults, there is still a focus on their relationship but it’s also about how they’ve integrated into their respective groups: Patricia with the witches and Laurence with the scientists. Of course, the beginning foretold of a battle between these two and the science/technology vs. nature/magic trope is not one I particularly like since it can be simplistic and too black and white. However, I think that summarizing it as a book about science vs. nature would be overlooking the point when there were so many examples of people discovering those they thought of as opposites were in fact stronger together. I actually quite liked what Charlie Jane Anders did with this trope in the end.
Although I thought the outcome was fantastic, my main issue with All the Birds in the Sky was the conclusion. The novel is wrapped up quite hastily, and I also felt like it didn’t provide satisfactory explanations for the recurrence of the question “Is a tree red?” throughout the story. As I mentioned earlier, the second part of the novel doesn’t come together quite as well, and I think this is largely because it feels like there are some gaps after spending so much time on their childhood and then skipping over their time actually becoming a witch and a scientist. Enough information on the past is provided that it didn’t bother me as much as the rushed ending, though.
Despite these quibbles, I found All the Birds in the Sky to be an utterly charming book with a delightful narrative voice and blending of fantasy and science fiction, and I especially appreciated how it handled a common trope that often irritates me. I’ll be very surprised if it isn’t still one of my favorite 2016 releases by the end of the year!
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.