I wanted to read All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders the minute I heard the premise: a girl with magical powers and a boy who is a science prodigy are best friends as children, but they lose track of each other as they develop their respective skills. As adults, they must join together to save the world as it falls to pieces around them. The author is one the editor-in-chief of the science fiction blog io9, so I was expecting some a solid system (either magical or scientific or both) to provide a foundation of awesomeness. I was so enthralled that I read the book over a 2-day period, but I was so annoyed through much of it that I wasn’t sure I should bother writing about it at all. In the end, my feelings about the whole thing are just too varied to answer the important question (Would I recommend this to a friend?) with a simple yes or no.
The first thing that grabbed my attention when I started the book was that the main characters names are Patricia and Laurence. Add in Patricia’s sister Roberta and you have the names of 3/5 of the children in my mother’s family. That’s not a reason to read a book, I know, but there you have it. The first portion of the book follows Patricia and Laurence through their respective childhoods as they grapple with family drama and the exploration of their respective talents. One of my main problems with the book stems from the fact that I have read plenty of really great YA literature. This section is not that. The adolescent characters are too much like adults with a few childish quirks thrown in after the fact. The parents and teachers are all too disinterested or awful to be believable. (My mom’s pet peeve is how mothers rarely live past the opening segment of Disney movies. Apparently mine is YA novels where every adult is incompetent or malicious.) I found myself wishing the events of the first half had been condensed to a long prologue.
The second half of the book follows now-grown Patricia and Laurence as they navigate an increasingly more chaotic world. I really enjoyed the dichotomy of their adult lives. Patricia is a magical assassin by day who spends her nights healing people and conversing with animals. (It sounds lame, maybe, but it was very cool.) Laurence works for a super secret tech company and his girlfriend is designing robots who have near-human emotional responses. When Patricia and Laurence meet up again by coincidence at a party (having lost touch in high school), it is obvious their worlds won’t mix well. Laurence’s friends and coworkers are written so well (see above for the author’s credentials). They are smart and accomplished without relying on the usual science nerd stereotypes. Patricia’s friends are a bit more mysterious, but I loved the variety of their magical skills and temperaments.
There were so many things I loved about this book: the weirdness of it, the mashup of sci-fi and fantasy elements, the fast pace of the action, the quirky romance, the lines that so perfectly summed up an experience or emotion. “She didn’t even notice what sort of crap they slung onto her tray. Someone who doesn’t care if they get Tater Tots or turnip slurry is a person who has given up on life.” But just as I think I should up my Goodreads rating by a star or two, I remember the things I really did not love: the way the story gave too much information or not enough, characters that showed up with very detailed descriptions (like Kevin, the anglophile dog walker) only to play no role and disappear a few pages later, the whole book leading up to a big catastrophic event but then only giving us a very tiny preview of the solution.
Ultimately, I liked the idea of All the Birds in the Sky better than I liked the book itself. So much of the premise provided me with fascinating fodder for discussion and consideration, but the actual telling fell a little flat for me. I did have a laugh when I read the first line of the acknowledgements: “I really hope you guys enjoyed this book. If you didn’t, or if there was stuff that didn’t make sense to you or seemed too random, just e-mail me and I’ll come to your house and act the whole thing out for you. Maybe with origami finger puppets.” I would definitely enjoy the origami finger puppet version of this book.
I would recommend this to: fans of both science fiction and fantasy who are looking for an interesting concept, especially those who can use “phototropism” in a sentence. (From the book: “There’s a huge, vital part of me that reaches out to you in some kind of emotional phototropism.”) By way of warning: Despite the age of the characters in the first half of the book, there are a few too many swear words and mentions of sex for me to recommend it without disclaimer.