All the Birds in the Sky

all-the-birds-in-the-skyAs children, Patricia and Laurence were equally awkward but in different ways. Laurence wanted nothing to do with going outdoors, preferring instead to tinker with technology. He even managed to create a simple two-second time machine, which is handier than you might think. Patricia loved getting grubby outdoors, instead of staying indoors and tidy like her sister, Roberta. And it turns out that nature took an interest in Patricia—she discovered she could talk to animals, among other things.

The first half or so of this novel by Charlie Jane Anders shows how these two misfits become friends, liking each other even when they didn’t understand each other. I love the idea of bringing science fiction and fantasy together in this way, and the near-future world Anders builds has lots of potential to develop in interesting ways.

The second half of the book turns to Patricia and Laurence as young adults. Having been apart for 10 years while pursuing an education in their areas of talent, the two come together again and discover that their different talents have put them in entirely different worlds. Both worlds are pursuing solutions to the earth’s problems, but they cannot connect—and may even destroy each other. Again, an interesting idea.

This book has lots of interesting ideas, too many in fact. As entertaining as the story is at time, the book as a whole feels largely underdeveloped. It might have been better as two separate books, where the two phases of the characters’ lives would have room to breathe. As it is, significant elements get brought up and then dropped with little explanation or serious follow-up. This happens with plot elements, such as the assassin who tries to guide Patricia and Laurence when they are kids. We learn his ultimate fate, but a lot of what happens in between gets completely left out. In the second half, we get a lot of details about robots developing sentience, but that doesn’t go anywhere in the end.

The problem is even worse when it comes to emotional elements. I was especially troubled by the treatment of Patricia’s relationship with her family. They are clearly abusive, locking her in her room for days and slipping food under the door. And her sister torments the cat. It is a shocking environment, and it’s understandable why Patricia would leave. But by the latter half of the book, everything is copacetic? I mean, sure, that happens, but we never see it happening. Similarly, when Patricia and Laurence’s relationship takes a major shift, we get most of it in flashback rather than going on the journey with them.

The plot is leisurely for much of the book. In fact, although I enjoyed the pace of the first half, by the second half, I was starting to feel that it was all set up. No singular conflict or problem had emerged, other than the secrets the main characters must keep and the fact that the world is falling apart. And then it becomes ALL CONFLICT (almost) ALL THE TIME as the story races through several major showdowns between science and magic to come to a screeching halt at the end.

And now is where I note that most of these complaints only emerged after I finished the book and thought about it for a bit. I was engaged in the story all the way through, and many of these complaints were mere niggles in the back of my mind as I read on, wondering where this would all go. But when I was done, I couldn’t help but wish for the book(s) this could have been. As pleased as I am to come across fantasy novels that aren’t part of a series, I’d rather a story with so much potential for awesomeness be given the space it needs.


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7 Responses to All the Birds in the Sky

  1. Heather says:

    I liked this book a lot when I read it back in April, but some of the details of what I liked and what I didn’t haven’t fully stuck with me. Looking back at what I wrote about it at the time: I was definitely conflicted about Patricia’s family, though I ended up feeling like it was less a depiction of “real”/realistic family dynamics and more a way of playing with a sort of fairy-tale trope of the child-hero with the terrible family, which then fit in with the way the book played with other literary/genre conventions (quest narratives, saving-the-world stories, outcast-genius stories, star-crossed lovers). But it felt like a tough line to walk, though also an appealing one for me – in terms of being this sort of both/and feeling where I was responding both to Patricia and Laurence’s story/stories, and also to the way those stories played with these larger structures/conventions.

    • Teresa says:

      I like the idea that she was playing with typical tropes and conventions. I just think she was taking on too much. I was somewhat on board with Patricia’s parents as fairy-tale-style absent parents until the shift halfway through. Maybe if she’d been entirely estranged from them, I could have bought it.

      • Heather says:

        Yeah, I can see the depiction of Patricia’s parents working better if she’d been entirely estranged from them, and yes, there was definitely a lot going on.

  2. YES to the depiction of Patricia’s parents. I was really, really bothered by that tonal shift, and I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to make of it. Like you, I enjoyed elements of this book a lot but didn’t feel like it fit together into a coherent whole, ultimately. My recollection is that Anders intended it to be two books and ended up making it one, which would explain the slightly cobbled-together feel it has.

    • Teresa says:

      You express it very well–not knowing what we’re supposed to make of it. The novel doesn’t treat it seriously, but it felt too real not to take seriously. And then having her parents’ deaths be Emotionally Significant in the second half without dealing with that history. It was puzzling.

      And that’s interesting that she might have been planning two books. It would have worked so much better.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Yes, what you and Jenny said! I liked the book well enough but there were all kinds of threads, and elements that weren’t developed enough or struck a false note. As much as I long for more stand alone spec fic, I think Jenny is right that it would have been better as two books, and if it was supposed to be two books, I’d be curious to know why it became one. Anders isn’t new to the writing game and, I believe, has a pretty good following at i09.

    • Teresa says:

      I’d love to know how that decision to make it one book was made. If the childhood stuff had been all there was, with perhaps a little hopeful pointing toward the future where they can do their own things, I would have adored this book and recommended it all over. It had a pleasing fairy-tale feeling about it.

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