Before I write this review, I want to tell you about something I hate, and something I love. (Don’t worry. This is relevant, I promise.)
- One Thing I Hate: When I was a kid, I hated going to the bookstore and seeing one big section labeled “Science-Fiction and Fantasy.” These were wildly different genres to me (an admitted nerd), and I found it baffling that we shoved them together, considering they had little, if anything, in common, apart from perhaps the perceived audience.
- One Thing I Love: The more I read, the more I love books that refuse to abide by genre boundaries, and the more in awe of them I am. Writing in a single genre is hard enough, but mixing your genres can be doubly hard, to say nothing of the risk you take in alienating an audience that doesn’t want unexpected shifts. But for me, there’s something exhilarating about books that defy expectations and easy categorization, because to me, that’s what life does.
So, what does all these have to do with All the Birds in the Sky, the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders? Well, Anders’ novel does that thing I love, and more than that, it would be one of the only books I know that easily would fit in that strange hybrid genre bookstores created, because it’s that rare book that mixes science-fiction and fantasy elements seamlessly, interweaving the two and playing them against each other in rich and satisfying ways. And if that’s not enough for you, it’s a coming of age story, a quiet romance, a YA novel, a dystopian/post-apocalyptic tale, and more, all while completely working in a way you wouldn’t expect from something that ambitious.
So what is this book about? It’s best to go in relatively cold, so I won’t go too much into detail, beyond telling you that the book’s early pages focus on the friendship between Laurence and Patricia, two kids who’d be comfortably labeled as “outcasts” by most of their peers. Both come from dysfunctional homes; both are more talented than they’d first appear; both enjoy the company of the other, who seem to accept them for who they are. But what we know, and Laurence and Patricia don’t come to understand immediately, is that they come from two different worlds. Because while it’s evident from the early going that Laurence is a techno-geek, one who makes two-second time machines and artificial intelligences, Patricia’s talents seem to be more fantastic and supernatural – indeed, they seem to be drawn from the world of witchcraft.
That conflict – between science and magic – makes for fertile ground, and All the Birds in the Sky embraces it, letting that schism and divide drive the novel as it develops in wild an unexpected directions. And every time you think you have a handle on it, it slides away from you and evolves. Oh, you think it’s a YA tale about two friends coming to terms with their destiny? No, that’s only the early going. Oh, it’s something in the vein of The Magicians, with the underground world of magic and how we connect to the real world and ourselves? Nope, it’s not that either, nor is it an easy tale about how science can save the world from our worst impulses. Indeed, one of the great joys of All the Birds is seeing how the book constantly defies expectations, evolving and shifting while remaining true to its characters and its themes, all throughout.
Enough can’t be said about Anders’ craft, which doesn’t just create a lushly imagined and crafted world, but populates it with memorable characters down to the smallest supporting role. More than that, there’s her wonderful command of tone, which can slide from comic hilarity (a casual reveal and apparent side story in the early going about a man at the mall is laugh out loud funny and absurd) to heartbreaking, from wondrous to nightmarish – but every one has the same command of craft and ability. And more than that, there’s the amazing story, which spans years and half the planet, and touches on man’s responsibility to the planet, science ethics, redemption, and more, all while never losing sight of these two characters and their bond. It’s rich, imaginative, wild, and more than anything else, it’s incredibly humane and beautiful in ways that just made me smile. And that, I think, is the best thing about it – the top of a very long list of great things. (Well, that and the fact that this is Anders’ first novel, which hopefully presages a long career to come.)