Book of the Year 2016 (see all)
Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky is an engaging novel following the lives of two very different characters as they try to deal with the issues of growing up and trying to save the world that they live in. The novel is split into four books, with each section allowing us to see snapshots of both Patricia and Laurence's lives. All the Birds in the Sky is a book about feats of magic and genius level engineering skills that focuses on human emotion and communication.
We first meet Patricia and Laurence when they are children and although they have to face the difficulties of parents that do not understand them they could be worse off. Patricia realises that she can talk to birds and that they can understand her. She is told by the birds that she is a witch. Laurence stands out at school and is picked on for this until he eventually discovers how to build his own two second time machine. A chance encounter with some rocket scientists gives him a future to work towards.
Patricia and Laurence don't meet until Patricia joins Laurence's junior high school. As they are both outsiders they kind of drift together even though they are very different from each other. Mostly they hang out so that Laurence can get out of the nature excursions his parents want him to go on. Whilst reading the first two books of this story I was constantly impressed by how well Charlie Jane Anders tortures her main characters. From the teenagers at Laurence and Patricia's school who seem to be particularly vicious when dealing with people who don't fit in, to their own families trying to do what they think is best for them. What I enjoyed most about Patricia and Laurence is that they do not complain about their poor treatment, neither of them break down and cry that "it's not fair", instead, they look for solutions and are stoic in their determination that life after school must be significantly better than their present. Neither character acts like they are victims, even though they can't control the actions of others.
Although the book is mostly concerned with the lives of Patricia and Laurence, this doesn't mean that they live in an empty world, the cast of characters that help shape them to adulthood is very varied. There is Isobel who helps inspire Laurence, by giving him a chance and not just thinking he was a child. Roberta, Patricia's sister who goes out of her way to torture Patricia so that there is no respite for her at home either. Then there is Theodolphus, as an assassin who believes he has seen a vision of the future where science and magic are at war with each other. Theodolphus believes that he must stop this from happening, but he could be the catalyst that causes the world to end. There are a whole host of tech guys and girls that make up Laurence's world. There are also the witches that Patricia works with, who all have their own unique identities and skill sets.
From the overwhelming sadness I felt at the end of book two, we move on to books three and four with Patricia and Laurence as adults unknowingly both living in San Francisco. Patricia is now a full-fledged witch, trying to help the people around her overcome their problems, at the same time doing the jobs given to her by senior witches, which can involve cursing people. Patricia's life is all about balance, but she worries about the state the world is in and whether she is making any difference. Laurence now works for the Ten Percent Project which is also trying to solve the world's environmental issues on a large scale, or if they can not solve these issues then they will find another planet so that the human race can live on. As adults both Patricia and Laurence still carry around their childhood scars, of feeling abandoned and never being good enough.
I liked that even at this point, when you meet the characters as adults you still do not know how the story could end. Will Patricia and Laurence end up destroying the world or will they be able to come together to use their skills in science and magic to avert the environmental collapse of the world and be able to save people, or are they just two people who will never fully reach their potential? Charlie Jane Anders has written an important book that uses environmentalism as a subject matter without forcing it down our throats, and this allows us as readers to gain perspective. The fact that both Patricia and Laurence feel as ineffective as we do despite all their skills helps to ground them in reality, but also shows that the future is not set in stone and we all have our parts to play.
One of the main issues in this story is that of miscommunication which allows for huge gulfs to develop between people. Laurence doesn't realise how good Patricia is for him, as she gives him perspective that he wouldn't receive if he was only surrounded by the people he works with. Whereas Patricia does need Laurence to believe in her, because although she is very powerful she is very much alone, even amongst the other witches she feels that she is apart from them. The act of really listening is more important than that of thinking you are listening and understanding. Both Laurence and Patricia have to learn this throughout the novel.
All the Birds in the Sky is an intense emotional roller-coaster that flits between genres, using both sci-fi and fantasy to get its message across and although it does pit them against each other, the novel never says one is better than the other, each has its place in this story and it is by both of these working together that the best outcome will be found. All the Birds in the Sky is also a very human story focusing on the confusion and mistrust that can come from not understanding the unknown.
I have to say that All the Birds in the Sky may just be my book of the year and I hope I have given you some reasons to check whether I am right.
Review by Michelle Herbert
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