After reading All the Birds in the Sky, the first novel from Hugo-award winner and former editor of io9, Charlie Jane Anders, I can honestly say I’ve never encountered a novel that so perfectly blended my two favorite genres. Growing up as an outcast, I sought comfort in science fiction and fantasy. Solace could equally be found in Dungeons and Dragons along with reruns of Doctor Who. In those moments, I didn’t feel quite so alone. This book about two opposing outcasts is a work that can only be described as sheer brilliance. Charlie Jane Anders has crafted a beautiful novel that attempts to teach us that our similarities, not our differences, define us as a society.
Magic and technology. Never have two opposing yet necessary forces been captured so well as in these two main characters. For magic, there’s Patricia, a witch who got her first taste of magic as a child. One day, a wounded sparrow leads her to the Parliament of Birds. When asked the impossible question of “Is a tree red?” Patricia’s struggle of an answer haunts her until the end of the novel. For technology, we have Laurence, a technology genius who builds the next generation of AI (as well as a two-second time machine). Both Patricia and Laurence grow up with unhappy childhoods. They are teased and misunderstood in a world that fails to appreciate each of their respective talents. Then, they meet each other, where they find some measurement of solace. Both long for escape, one into the woods, the other into the stars. As different as their beliefs are, they are drawn to each other. A series of unfortunate events separates them until adulthood, where they enter and leave each other’s orbits as only two brilliant stars could accomplish.
I appreciated how it often felt like I was reading two very separate novels. Our two main characters spend the majority of time separate from each other. Patricia, now a successful witch, uses her powers to help people. Laurence spends his time working with a group on a project to save the human race from their inevitable destruction. Separately, each character is quite dazzling. When they do come together at random points, it’s a moment of beautiful intensity. I had no idea where this novel was heading in terms of plot, but I promise that it all comes together meticulously in the final pages.
I appreciated how throughout the novel, Anders echoes The Magicians, one of my all-time favorite fantasy series that reveled in sarcasm and melodrama in equal measure. While most readers of serious sci-fi and fantasy might be put off by this approach, I personally appreciated the willingness to pick and choose from any genre at any given moment. Anders plays fast and loose with the traditional rules, and I think the book is so much stronger because of the freedom of style. The result is a hodgepodge of sci-fi and fantasy tropes. Where else are you going to find death rays and sentient computers in a universe that also has schools of magic and inter-dimensional portals! Throw in some comedy and a dash of romance and the result is such a fun book.
At its heart, All the Birds in the Sky is about the great divide between science fiction and fantasy, or magic and technology. Patricia and Laurence are so different in many ways yet so drawn together. The romantic element is so subtle in the storytelling, it’s just perfection. There’s a moral to the story that becomes crystal clear by the book’s end. By focusing on the similarities of Patricia and Laurence, while not diminishing the differences that tear them apart, Anders has created one of the best couples to ever appear in a work of fiction. And they save the world to boot! In the end, we see that these characters are us. We are all on a never-ending search to belong, whether to ourselves, to a community, or to each other. How each of us can accomplish this is the most important question of all.
“She misplaced herself in the woods over and over, until she knew by heart every way to get lost.”