‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is the SFF debut (but not first novel) of former io9.com editor, Charlie Jane Anders.
Childhood friends Patricia and Laurence are awkward, marginalised and un-nurtured but each reaches early teens infused with a sense that their lives are supposed to be more than they are.
She discovers she is a nature-witch—though in the beginning her abilities, including the ability to talk to birds, are ephemeral and hard to consolidate. He finds himself to be a super-scientist—initially through a nerdy interest in rocket-ships which develops into a preternatural mastery of physics. Both are positioned as being adork-able naïfs, ill-fitting in the achingly-cool tech-mecca of near-future San Francisco but doing their best to be accepted. The story offers snap-shots of their lives, both apart and together, across several time periods, as they try to develop their talents and their relationship.
The surface story is of how they try to make a difference in an imperfect world only to find themselves at the epicentre of the clash between science and magic; the sub-story is very much how they find themselves through each other. The former works well; the latter, a little less so.
In very different ways, Patricia and Laurence are kind of totemic figures, representing the potential of magical intervention and scientific breakthrough respectively. They both sense the world isn’t working, and is in need of healing, (in Patricia’s case) or fixing, (in Laurence’s case). She graduates from wizard academy and bands with other magicians and he leaves hi-tech uni to fall in with other engineering wunderkinds. Each group believes it has a world-adjustment remit but both dabble with forces they neither fully comprehend nor control. It all reaches a satisfyingly grand-scale cinematic, apocalyptic climax (cue: lots of CGI!)
What is less satisfying is the story of their relationship. Moving from sweetly innocent play-mates to gawky teens leads to a faltering point between them and they go separate ways. So far, so good. However, their reconnection in adulthood feels not only like a plot contrivance in itself but from that point forward has a sense of inevitability to it—to say more would technically be a spoiler, but you’ve already guessed what happens. Their relationship is depicted in all its intimacy, and readers will either find this resonates with bathos, demonstrating the poignant connection between characters, or it jars with mawkishness. Detailing such emotional truth is fiendishly hard to do, and the author does not flinch from the attempt, but—perhaps because it is played out against the well-worn ‘doomed love’ of their diametrically-opposed schooling—it is only partially successful.
There is poetry in the prose, with Anders conjuring some beautiful imagery in her use of language and there are fleeting moments of tranquillity amidst the rattle and hum of the dialogue. The action, by contrast, is occasionally a little too frenetic, and in some scenes it can be hard to be certain of what is actually going on, particularly when magic is involved. But perhaps that is the point: magic is chaotic, wild and abides only by its own laws. Equally, science proves a hard discipline to master—whilst it does adhere to its own laws its effects are often shown to be so far beyond understanding they may as well be magic too…exactly as Arthur C. Clarke has been telling us.
The setting is well-realised, both in the snarky hipster lingo and hi-tech one-upmanship evoking real-life Silicon Valley. The dialogue yields much amusement, running the fine lines between whip-smart and smart-ass, whilst the depiction of the affected attitudes of tech trend-setters is note-perfect: yesterday’s cool wearable is today’s discarded trinket and you’d better be sure you’ve got the latest upgrade, patch or hack, or you won’t get the invite to come see the latest obscure crossover band, in the latest niche fusion bar-eatery. (And yes, this reviewer has plenty of day-job experience with such tedious bastards). As part of this scene, several of the support cast characters are sketched rather than fully-fledged, with a few verging on hip-but-flaky ‘types,’ but this actually serves to throw the central pair into sharper relief as likeable and empathetic individuals.
For the most part, the plot is well-paced and compelling; the philosophical debate touched upon gives the book a thematic bedrock and the writing is stylish and engaging. But underneath all of the SF-fantasy, the heart of the story is a YA-to-adult-orientated romance and its resonance depends on the extent to which the reader roots for Patricia and Laurence…will the world tear them apart, or will they tear the world apart? Or will they reach middle-age and get matching ‘Pat ‘n’ Larry’ cocoa mugs?
(Spoiler: it’s not cocoa mugs).