All the Birds in the Sky

I read this in a way that I had sort of tacitly agreed with myself to stop doing: in great big tearing gulps, all at once, the whole thing in a day, which has left me with a book hangover and a sense that it needs digestion before being written about. I think it’s likely I won’t write such a long or detailed review here as some of my more recent ones have been, but that’s okay—a lot of my new attitude towards reading and writing is an experiment, so some trial and error is par for the course.

Which is probably what Laurence would say, Laurence being one half of the duo-tagonists of this book. He is a maths and science genius when we meet him, in the eighth grade, being brutally bullied. Patricia, our other main character, is a witch. But while Laurence is always capable of using his skills (to, for instance, build a two-second time machine with schematics he finds on the internet, which brings him to the attention of some grown-up geeks who will shape his adult life), Patricia is often unable to control or command hers for months at a time. We first meet her, age six, realizing she can talk to birds, and being directed by one of them to the Parliamentary Tree, where she is asked a seemingly unanswerable riddle; but the memory of this fades with time, and she is only sporadically able to communicate with animals, or use astral travel, until the crisis of her own experiences with bullying at school causes her to run away. You might think there’s a touch of gender essentialism in making Laurence’s power quintessentially male-inflected and Patricia’s quintessentially feminized: when Patricia speaks to the tree, it tells her “a witch serves nature”, which makes her wonder: if a witch serves nature and nature serves Laurence, would following the path of magic lead me to nothing more exciting than serving Laurence?

All the Birds isn’t totally interested in answering these questions—about power and interference—on a macro level, although it acknowledges them (trained witches, as Patricia eventually is, are constantly warned against Aggrandizement, or doing anything that might a) affect the course of the world too much, or b) make them feel that they themselves are any more important than “specks on a speck”). Patricia and Laurence argue in explicit terms about ethics: Laurence belives morals are derived from principles, Patricia that they’re situational. But ultimately—even though each of them ends up making choices that bring humanity closer to either abject destruction, or another chance at life—the novel is about two people, and the responsibilities they bear towards each other. There’s a touch of disproportion here, in that we both know by the end of the book that Patricia and Laurence really are just specks on a speck, and yet we’re also being asked to care the most about them; I’m not sure All the Birds is completely coherent in its riffs on the ideas of Chosen Ones and specialness vs. just doing what’s in your power to make the world a safer, kinder place.

I sort of don’t mind, though. Anders’s narrative tone oscillates between the arch and the urgent in a way that jolts a reader rather pleasantly: I found myself snorting at descriptions of the assassin Theodolphus Rose, determined to kill both Laurence and Patricia as children, who eats a poisoned ice-cream sundae in a suburban mall Cheesecake Factory and has to self-administer the antidote. His later attempts to get closer to them involve being hired as their school guidance counselor, and inadvertently becoming the most beloved educator in the school. These early sections might seem manic, I suppose, but they reminded me of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett at their satirical best—auspicious stylistic forbears for a novel about both science and magic. Later descriptions of the hAcKcOlLeCtIvE [sic] in the Bay Area where Laurence works on a wormhole machine that might save ten percent of humanity from a warming planet, or Danger Books, a San Francisco secondhand bookshop and absinthe bar where area witches congregate, are as assured as, and warmer than, anything out of Gibson or Gaiman. Ernesto, a witch whose touch supercharges anything organic (including himself) and Isobel, a scientist whose fear for her planet leads her to the brink of despair, could both have come straight out of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X novels. And in between the descriptions of our protagonists as children and adults just doing their thing, we get glimpses of a rather sinister world; the curriculum they follow, the Saarinian Programme, seems designed to have them memorizing and repeating obscure texts by rote (for instance, the speeches of Rutherford B. Hayes, which becomes a sort of running joke), and their families appear even more damaged and desensitized by late capitalism than is usual. (Patricia’s parents lock her in her room for a week at one point; her sister Roberta clearly tortures small animals; Laurence’s father is so terrified at the thought of falling behind in his work that he can’t even consider taking an afternoon off to go watch a rocket launch with his son.) The scene-setting and the set dressing in All the Birds is a big part of the fun (it would make a terrific mini-series). If the whole apocalypse part seems muddled, well, apocalypses usually are.

All the Birds in the Sky was published by Tor Books in the US in 2016; in the UK, where my copy originated, it’s published by Titan Books.

10 thoughts on “All the Birds in the Sky

  1. I am so glad you read this! I mostly remember absolutely loving this – and having the sense that Anders isn’t really all that interested in the apocalypse but more the quieter, more subdued human moments during it. I really should re-read this. (Sadly I didn’t get on with her second novel which is a lot more straightforward and science-heavy science fiction which just isn’t my favourite genre.)

    1. The human focus is clearly where Anders’s interest lies, yes! It’s quite unusual to read a book where that’s simultaneously the case, *and* we also get to understand the scale of the destruction facing the world; it can make it hard to give P&L’s problems as much attention as Anders wants us to. The tone did it for me, though!

  2. I’ve just looked back at my review of this one, which I really enjoyed, even if it does suffer from that debut surfeit of ideas crammed in. I’ve compared the romance aspect to Romeo & Juliet with the supercomputer as Friar Lawrence! Her second book was that ‘difficult’ second novel and was nowhere near as good, and was more YA with the school setting at the start, whereas Eltisley Maze felt more like uni to me anyway which was a good thing.

  3. I’ve been back and forth several times over whether I should read this one. Your review has convinced me that it probably won’t be my thing (I’m not sure I’d get on with the mix between sillier and more serious forms of fantasy that you seem to be describing – I’m not a Pratchett fan).

    1. I wasn’t sure I’d be into it either, but it worked for me (I dislike a lot of more recent Pratchett, as I think he started curdling in the mid-’00s). I will say that the tone settles down a lot after the opening few chapters, although that might be a few chapters more than you really want to give a book to convince you…

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