I forget where I first heard about Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds in the Sky, but I do know that when I heard the premise, I couldn’t get my hands on a copy fast enough. I’m a sucker for “best friends in childhood-turned-rivals in adult life” narratives – which is a pretty specific taste, I know, but Birds seemed to fit into it nice and cozy, so I was jazzed.
Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead meet in middle school, where they bond over the fact that they’re both social outcasts in their own way: Patricia is a witch and Laurence is a science geek/genius, making them both the perfect targets for bullies. At home, where both their parents have a tendency to punish them for things out of their control, it’s not much better. They forge the kind of awkward-but-close friendship that can only be forged in the crucible that is middle school until events spiral out of their control and they’re forced to part ways.
This half of the book – with Patricia and Laurence going through middle school together – was both engaging and compelling as you watch the friendship between the two young and, in some ways, naive kids blossom in spite of the adversity they face, both within school and without. Patricia’s adorable as a would-be witch and Laurence’s sober and sometimes-cynical outlook on life is amusing, considering his young age. You can see exactly how and why they make the perfect pair, but you can also see the beginnings of what will eventually strain their friendship – their disagreements foreshadow something much bigger to come.
After their friendship seems to have frayed beyond repair and they go their separate ways, Patricia graduates from an academy of magic to perfect her craft and Laurence joins up with a science division getting knee-deep in technological development. They reunite during this era of their lives – adulthood, yuck – and find that their differences as children have grown into much more serious and ideological disputes. Their differences of opinion could, quite literally, either save or doom the world to either science or magic – or both.
Unfortunately for me, this half of the book is where the story seemed to fall apart, mostly due to the pacing and focus. I had a great time getting to know Patricia and Laurence as kids, and while I enjoyed catching up with their separate adult escapades, I was ready for the main plot to get going. It took a long time to get there – too long. It feels as though the actual world-ending catastrophes that Patricia and Laurence are supposed to find themselves at odds over don’t actually happen until the last 60-80 pages of a 320-page book. They spend most of the second half rekindling and then losing and then rekindling again their friendship; there are some very interesting flashbacks to Patricia’s time at Eltisley Maze, her magical alma mater, but even those are few and far between.
I was excited for a big showdown between science and magic – another very specific taste of mine – but it wasn’t so much a showdown as a very brief disagreement between two people. I loved the allure of witchcraft and science fiction blending together but found that it wasn’t about the clashing of elements so much as the clashing of two people who view the world very differently based on how they were raised and educated.
Is that bad? Not necessarily, no. Personal clashes between characters can mean so much more in fiction – just ask Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, or Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, or Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, or… yeah, you get it. It can be a very effective emotional hook for the reader, but it didn’t feel fully realized between Patricia and Laurence, and so you’re left to rely on the magic-versus-science clash instead – but because that also doesn’t feel as compelling, ultimately you’re left with a bit of a lukewarm climax.
The setting and atmosphere, though? I could sink into a pillow of this book’s aesthetic all day – the soft and sometimes electric power of magic combined with the exciting and ruthless aspects of science were easy to lose yourself in, and you wind up not wanting to pull yourself out even when the book ends.
Overall, despite its flaws, I would recommend All The Birds in the Sky to fans of magical realism/light fantasy and sci-fi. It’s worth checking out and losing yourself in the world Anders has created while trying to answer for yourself who, if either of them, is on the right side to save the world.
3.5 out of 5 stars