Book Review: All the Birds in the Sky—Charlie Jane Anders
by LeeAnn Adams
(The following contains spoilers.)
At the beginning of All the Birds in the Sky, I was nervous that this novel would bore me. Protagonist Patricia Delfine, in the first sentence, finds a bird with a broken wing. This familiar trope caused me to slog through the first page until I ran into her sister Roberta—who “put frogs into a rusty Cuisinart” and “stuck mice into her homemade rocket launcher, to see how far she could shoot them.” If that isn’t strange and awful enough to compel a reader forward, the wounded bird talks back to Patricia by the third page, because apparently she is “a witch! Or something.”
It wasn’t long before I learned that Anders is kin to the Trickster magicians—one of the two parties of magic folk she pens to life—and that the novel is actually rather intriguing. Anders’s science fantasy novel starts off a bit Harry Potteresque, stomps on the breaks, and then shifts to a future, cli-fi apocalypse. All the while Anders toys with (and sometimes refreshes) familiar science fiction and fantasy tropes, such as the magic school, the doomsday machine, and artificial intelligence.
Laurence Armstead—Patricia’s confidant, enemy, and lover—balances Patricia’s magical mayhem with his peculiar science experiments. Throughout the novel the perspectives of these two characters dominate, building both tension and connection between their preferred means of power. Then Anders adds in a prophetic assassin, rocket scientists, terrifying relatives, a military reform school, not-too-proud witches and wizards, a plethora of hipster hangouts, and ethically challenged techno-geniuses to stir the pot.
The book follows Laurence and Patricia through three specific points in their childhood, adolescence, and young adult lives. Patricia grapples with the awakening and sudden deficit of her abilities until one fateful night she is invited to the magic school—re-emerging years later as a powerful, practicing witch. Laurence builds gadgets that are progressively more complex, ultimately attempting to create a machine that could act as a passageway to another habitable planet. Unfortunately, the interests of Patricia and Laurence are fated to be at odds and only the indestructible bond of love can overcome the division between them.
At times the novel is outrageous, at times funny, and oftentimes quirkily philosophical. But it is when all three of these things converge in Anders’s prose that the reader is seized by the novel. Like when Laurence is scolded by his parents: “When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand he couldn’t do what he liked.” Or this nugget of wisdom from Laurence’s AI CH@NG3M3 (later named Peregrine): “Society is the choice between freedom on someone else’s terms and slavery on yours.”
Overall, All the Birds in the Sky is anything but boring. The twisted tropes are entertaining and the story weird, sobering, and hopeful. Though you may find yourself annoyed with Patricia and Laurence as much as they are annoyed with each other, you’ll still feel compelled to root for their relationship and individual growth. Despite impending doom, Anders has written an enchanting tale of real love.
LeeAnn Adams (pen name L. N. Holmes) is a Midwestern writer. Her writing has appeared in F(r)iction, Dually Noted, Vestal Review, STARK, GERM Magazine, Garbanzo Literary Journal, and several other publications. She’s received the Katherine B. Rondthaler Award for Poetry, the President’s Prize for Creative Writing, and a first place nonfiction award from the North Carolina College Media Association. Currently, she’s a half-fellowship student in Creighton University’s MFA program for creative writing, where she serves as a fiction editor for Blue River. She hopes to one day publish a novel (or a series of novels).