All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Titan Books, 2016, 429 p.

 All the Birds in the Sky cover

This, Anders’s first novel, is a blend of Fantasy and Science Fiction which starts off reading like YA fiction but soon enough makes clear that it deals with adult matters too. Patricia Delfine very early in her life realises she is a witch when birds begin to talk to her and she can talk back. She also has a conversation with a speaking tree – The Tree. In school her path crosses that of Laurence Armstead, a so-called techno-geek, who invents for himself a two-second time machine for travel only into the future, and later builds an AI he calls CH@NG3M3. For both of them schooldays are a kind of purgatory, as they are picked on and bullied. Their home lives are little better, both using the other as a means of convincing their parents they are out doing what is desired for them rather than what they wish for themselves. Mixed in with all this is an assassin called Mr Rose who gets a job as counsellor at their school in order to monitor their activities. Despite appearing intermittently in the novel Mr Rose’s function is not really clearly defined.

Later the children’s lives diverge as Patricia finds the company of other witches (whose old division into Healers and Tricksters was patched over many years before.) She is always being warned by them of the dangers of Aggrandisement. It seems just about anything she does can be interpreted in this way. Laurence is recruited by Milton Dirth to work on his project to build a wormhole machine to take humans to another planet. In the background there is a large degree of environmental degradation which makes this construction seem worthwhile and in daily life an electronic device called a Caddy somehow engineers people’s lives to be better through apparently serendipitous meetings and the like. How all these things are connected and Patricia and Laurence’s coming together in adult life are central to the story.

There are some observations on human nature. In one of their conversations Laurence says to Patricia “‘no matter what you do, people are going to expect you to be someone you’re not. But if you’re clever and work your butt off, then you get to be surrounded by people who expect you to be the person you wish they were.’”

Oddly, despite the novel being written in USian I noticed the British usages, “a total wanker,” “for some emergency nookie,” and “one intense wank fantasy.” In addition I was delighted to see the phrase “head for the Dumbarton.” (The Dumbarton is a bridge over San Francisco Bay – the southernmost. Its name derives from Dumbarton Point, itself named after my home town.)

Though it has some flaws, All the Birds in the Sky is overall an impressive debut.

Pedant’s corner:- epicenter [sic] (it was a centre,) a missing comma before a quotation mark, a capital letter after a colon, “none of the computers were connected” (none .. was connected,) “‘to lay low’” (lie low,) Patricia at one point is said to have reasonably fullish breasts but later they are described as small, “Here’s what Isobel said to Laurence, just before the earthquake hit” is a poor – a dreadful – way to start a flashback.

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