A couple of weeks ago, two things happened almost simultaneously, as if by….magic. I found the recently released book, “All The Birds in The Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders, and I stumbled on SYFY’s new original show “The Magicians”. I plowed through both of them, which led to me being able to do something else new. For the first time ever, I am using the same paragraph to start two separate articles. Cross that baby off the bucket list.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the modern magic theme in pop culture. Harry Potter was just OK for me. I’ve seen all of the movies, and only read the first book. When I was a kid, (I have somehow reached the “over the hill” age of 51 now) I loved Lord of the Rings, the Shannara books, and the Dragonlance line, all traditional high fantasy. As I grew older, I moved away from fantasy altogether, to straight science fiction, then to near future tech thriller Michael Crichton stuff, and then to action and mystery books. Magic, for the most part was the stuff of kids books for me.
Charlie Jane Anders turned that idea upside for me. I found her book by accident, I suppose, as I am a big fan of IO9.com, the science/science fiction website that Anders serves as editor. I was reading a post by Anders, and at the bottom there was a link to the book. “…a witch and a mad scientist grow up together….” OK, I was in.
There are so many good things about “All The Birds In The Sky” that it will be hard to choose which to highlight. A delightful mix of fantasy and science fiction, “All The Birds…” takes place in a not so distant future where the country has begun to see the effects of unchecked human activity. Climate change, disease, and starvation are now realities in the dystopia that Anders imagines.
The book follows two young misfits who begin their journeys at the age of six. Patricia Delfine finds an injured sparrow and while trying to save it from her torturous sister, Roberta, and a hungry cat named Tommington, learns that she can talk to animals. She manages to escape the two and with the help of the sparrow finds her way to the Parliamentary Tree, where she learns she is a witch. Sadly, before she can get much farther, her father finds her and takes her home to face her punishment for wandering away.
Laurence Armstead, “With a U, not a W” is a little tech genius, who at the same age as Patricia has invented a 2 second time machine, capable of moving him forward in time just 2 seconds. It’s not really all that helpful, but it does introduce him to a team of rocket scientists, and his future boss, who take him under their wing.
“All the Birds…” is divided into 4 separate books. The second of the books, brings our two “heroes” together at Canterbury Academy, where, whether by luck or necessity, the two forge a friendship. Canterbury is a terrible middle school where both Patricia’s and Laurence’s parents have plopped them, in the hopes that they will be relieved of their oddities and their unwillingness to conform. Unfortunately, for the two, their parents and teachers and the other students offer no acceptance for the non-conformity, and their lives are challenging at both school and home. Both work to hide their gifts, so much so that Laurence creates a super computer that he hides in his bedroom closet. Anders masterfully illustrates the pains, disparagement, and ostracization of young kids who are perceived to be different, and the fragile unions that develop between them. They tell each other their secrets, and they work together to push Laurence’s closet supercomputer towards sentience, because that’s what these middle schoolers do.
Book Three jumps forward to twenty-something Patrica and Laurence who run into each other years later in San Francisco. Patricia, now a trained witch, and Laurence a tech-scientist who has been enlisted in the Ten Percent Project. The scheme is to develop technology to open a wormhole and move 10% of the Earth’s population to a new planet before the destruction of this one is complete.
This is the meat of the book. Both of the characters have reached their stride. They’ve developed their skills – technology and magic – and are both working with groups of people bent on saving the world, although each group has a different idea on what that means. The characters are reunited. They are stronger in their crafts, but remain awkward and deeply effected from their early years of being outcasts and targets. Despite the fact that they have established lives, that are not even close to compatible, the two are drawn to each other again, in a clunky, awkward, way that Anders makes a delight to witness.
There is no Sauron or Voldemort in this book. No physical big bad that the two have to fight to save the world. In fact, Anders puts the two on opposite sides of the same fight, both believing strongly in their methodology, and once one side wins, their relationship is devastated.
Book three is a delight for so many reasons. The characters Anders crafts, both main and secondary, are rich, with ideas about the future of humanity. These are big issues that Anders introduces, and her characters fully discuss the philosophy and ethics at play, in a sometimes dark, sometimes humorous way. Her attention to detail is fantastic, and each scene is filled with tiny details that offer this book such depth. One of the best elements added here is the introduction of the Caddy, a probably not too fictional look at the future of the smart phone. It is also here in Book Three that we see what happens when two powerful forces – magic and technology – meet.
There’s, of course, more. Book Four winds it up to a conclusion that was inevitable, but unexpected in many of its details. It added even more flavor to the unraveling world in which the characters lived. Many of those ideas, like the rise of the modern madrigal choir, are delightfully amusing.
Overall, the book wasn’t perfect. Several times I found myself backtracking a page or two to start over, as I got lost in some of the complexities that Anders created. Many of the other reviews I looked at used the word quirky in their descriptions, and try as I might, I could not find a better word. There were several chuckle out loud moments, and many times I found myself smiling as I read. The characters, despite their deep flaws (mostly created by the characters in their early lives) were engaging, and even at their worse, were likable. From the very beginning I rooted for them both. I look forward to whatever Charlie Jane Anders publishes next.
Final Score 9/10
A delight from beginning to end because of compelling characters, a fun plot premise, and a great sense of humor. I wanted more.
+ Realistic portrayal of characters who started as tortured outcasts
+ Great mix of technology and whimsy
+ Unexpected plot twists and connections
+ A few great “Ah ha” moments
– A few confusing places
– One element of the ending wasn’t satisfying
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