All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders got lots of prepublication buzz. So original and unexpected and really really good. I thought the plot synopsis sounded good and I have read a few of Anders’ pieces on i09 and really liked them so I figured, why not take a chance? I hopped on the library list and got in pretty early in the queue for a change. I am not going to fall in with the “it’s so amazing and original” crowd because I didn’t think it was either of those. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the book, it was an enjoyable read and the plot was a little out of the ordinary but not so far out I’d call it original.
What is the plot? It follows the lives of Laurence and Patricia from childhood to their mid-twenties. Both of them have insanely draconian parents that I found a bit hard to believe. Patricia and Laurence are both a little odd. Laurence is a super computer genius kid who builds a two-second time-travel watch he found the specs for on the internet. When he decides to go to Boston to see a rocket launch from MIT but doesn’t tell his parents, he meets the designers of the rocket who are all impressed with this little kid and who give him hope that one day he might do great things. His parents aren’t so pleased. They send him to a school where discipline in strict and rote memorization is the teaching method of choice. Laurence’s parents also decide he spends too much time indoors, and somehow are completely clueless that he is building a super computer in his closet (do they not look at their electric bill and wonder why it is so high?), so they regularly send him to outdoor adventure camps.
Patricia has an older sister who likes to terrorize small animals, chopping the heads of birds and squirrels and other creatures. She’s a demented serial killer in the making. But because she follows her parents’ rules and gets good grades in school she is the favorite child. Patricia doesn’t like rules and spends far too much time running wild in the woods behind her house. While trying to save a bird with a hurt wing from her sister, Patricia learns she can understand bird language. The bird asks her to take him to the Parliament Tree so off Patricia goes, deep into the woods. She eventually finds the Tree, the Tree speaks to her, tells her she is a protector of Nature. The birds at the tree all speak to her as well, calling her a witch. When Patricia tries to find her way back home, it is well past dark and when she finally returns her parents are furious. In order to reign her in and try to make her normal, her parents send her to the same school as Laurence.
Of course neither of them fit in. Neither of them want to. They form a friendship that is fraught with outcast angst and eventual betrayal. Eventually both end up escaping from the school, Laurence to go to a special school for smart science kids, and Patricia to run away from home to attend a school for witches. Years pass before their paths cross again.
When they do meet again their values are in conflict. As a witch it is Patricia’s work to heal people, mostly without them even knowing it. But she also casts spells and hexes on people who intentionally harm others. Laurence is now working with a group of super geniuses, funded by a rich tech guy. They are working on anti-gravity. It is science versus Nature magic with both groups believing they are doing the right thing even if it might ultimately mean destroying humanity.
And that is what the book is ultimately about, science versus nature, the rational versus the wild. Patricia and Laurence are kind of like Romeo and Juliet in way, only they get a happy ending. The ending is a sort of weird melding of science and nature that is supposed to somehow save the world. Does it? We don’t get to find out for sure though we are left with a hint that the future is bright and promising.
Other than Patricia and Laurence the characters are not very well developed, their flatness is disappointing because it causes some gaps in our understanding of Patricia and Laurence and why they think and believe the way they do. The story moves along at a good pace as it changes back and forth between Patricia and Laurence. It isn’t exactly an alternating chapter kind of telling which is actually good because that would add a forced feeling to the story. Instead the alternating viewpoints have more of a flow between them that works nicely.
I was hoping for more than I got with this book, that’s the danger of buzz. I did enjoy it however, and don’t regret reading it. I suspect a good many people will like the book quite a lot. It seems to me those who don’t consider themselves avid fantasy or scifi readers would like All the Birds as it is a little bit country and a little bit rock-n-roll but not full out either one; a comfortable read for someone who wants to “try out” the genre.