All the Birds in the Sky

by Charlie Jane Anders

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: January 2016
ISBN: 1-4668-7112-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 315

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When Patricia was six years old, she rescued a wounded bird, protected it from her sister, discovered that she could talk to animals, and found her way to the Parliament Tree. There, she was asked the Endless Question, which she didn't know how to answer, and was dumped back into her everyday life. Her magic apparently disappeared again, except not quite entirely.

Laurence liked video games and building things. From schematics he found on the Internet, he built a wrist-watch time machine that could send him two seconds forward into the future. That was his badge of welcome, the thing that marked him as part of the group of cool scientists and engineers, when he managed to sneak away to visit a rocket launch.

Patricia and Laurence meet in junior high school, where both of them are bullied and awkward and otherwise friendless. They strike up an unlikely friendship based on actually listening to each other, Patricia getting Laurence out of endless outdoor adventures arranged by his parents, and the supercomputer Laurence is building in his closet. But it's not clear whether that friendship can survive endless abuse, the attention of an assassin, and their eventual recruitment into a battle between magic and technology of which they're barely aware.

So, first, the world-building in All the Birds in the Sky is subtly brilliant. I had been avoiding this book because I'd gotten the impression it was surreal and weird, which often doesn't work for me. But it's not, and that's due to careful and deft authorial control. This is a book in which two kids are sitting in a shopping mall watching people's feet go by on an escalator and guessing at their profession, and this happens:

The man in black slippers and worn gray socks was an assassin, said Patricia, a member of a secret society of trained killers who stalked their prey, looking for the perfect moment to strike and kill them undetected.

"It's amazing how much you can tell about people from their feet," said Patricia. "Shoes tell the whole story."

"Except us," said Laurence. "Our shoes are totally boring. You can't tell anything about us."

"That's because our parents pick out our shoes," said Patricia. "Just wait until we're grown up. Our shoes will be insane."

In fact, Patricia had been correct about the man in the gray socks and black shoes. His name was Theodolphus Rose, and he was a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins. He had learned 873 ways to murder someone without leaving even a whisper of evidence, and he'd had to kill 419 people to reach the number nine spot in the NOA hierarchy. He would have been very annoyed to learn that his shoes had given him away, because he prided himself on blending with his surroundings.

Anders maintains that tone throughout the book: dry, a little wry, matter-of-fact with a quirked smile, and utterly certain. The oddity of this world is laid out on the page without apologies, clear and comprehensible and orderly even when it's wildly strange. It's very easy as a reader to just start nodding along with magical academies and trans-dimensional experiments because Anders gives you the structure, pacing, and description that you need to build a coherent image.

The background work is worthy of this book's Nebula award. I just wish I'd liked the story better.

The core of my dislike is the characters, although for two very different reasons. Laurence is straight out of YA science fiction: geeky, curious, bullied, desperate to belong to something, loyal, and somewhere between stubborn and indecisive. But below that set of common traits, I never connected with him. He was just... there, doing predictable Laurence things and never surprising me or seeming to grow very much.

Laurence eventually goes to work for the Ten Percent Project, which is trying to send 10% of the population into space because clearly the planet is doomed. The blindness of that goal, and the degree to which the founder of that project resembled Elon Musk, was a bit too real to be funny. I kept waiting for Anders to either make a sharper satirical point or to let Laurence develop his own character outside of the depressing reality of techno-utopianism, but the story stayed finely balanced on that knife edge until it stopped being funny and started being awful.

Patricia, on the other hand, I liked from the very beginning. She's independent, determined, angry, empathetic, principled, and thoughtful, and immediately became the character I was cheering for. And every other major character in this novel is absolutely horrific to her.

The sheer amount of abusive gaslighting Patricia is subjected to in this book made me ill. Everyone from her family to her friends to her fellow magicians demean her, squash her, ignore her, trivialize her, shove her into boxes, try to get her to stop believing in things that happened to her, and twist every bit of natural ambition she has into new forms of prison. Even Laurence participates in this; although he's too clueless to be a major source of it, he's set up as her one port in the storm and then basically abandons her. I started the book feeling sorry for her; by the end of the book, I wanted Patricia to burn her life down with fire and start over with a completely new batch of humans. There's no way that she could do worse.

I want to be clear: I think this is an intentional authorial choice. I think Anders is entirely aware of how awful people are being, and the story of Laurence and Patricia barely managing to keep their heads above water despite them is the story she chose to write. A lot of other people loved it; this is more of a taste mismatch with the book than a structural flaw. But there are only so many paternalistic, abusive assholes passing themselves off as authority figures I can take in one book, and this book flew past my threshold and just kept going. Patricia and Laurence are mostly helpless against these people and have to let their worlds be shaped by them even when they know it's wrong, which makes it so, so much harder to bear.

The place where I think Anders did lose control of the plot, at least a little, is the ending. I can't fairly say that it came out of nowhere, since Anders was dropping hints throughout the book, but I did feel like it robbed the characters of agency in a way that I found emotionally unsatisfying as a reader, particularly since everyone in the book had been trying to take away Patricia's agency from nearly the first page. To have the ending then do the same thing added insult to injury in a way that I couldn't stomach. I can see the levels of symbolism knit together by this choice of endings, but, at least in my opinion, it would have been so much more satisfying, and somewhat redeeming of all the shit that Patricia had to go through, if she had been in firm control of how the symbolism came together.

This one's going to be a matter of taste, I think, and the world-building is truly excellent and much better than I had been expecting. But it's firmly in the "not for me" pile.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-07-28

Last modified and spun 2019-07-29