For years, Charlie Jane Anders has been worming her way into the hearts of genre readers through insightful commentary on science fiction and fantasy as editor-in-chief of io9, and winning over readers (and winning awards) with her brilliant short fiction. Her debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, only provides additional evidence that she’s among her generation’s most interesting and insightful voices in speculative fiction.
Every so often a novel comes along that begs to be discussed among friends, argued over coffee, and read until the spine breaks. All the Birds in the Sky is such a book. It’s a gorgeous coming-of-age story about magic and science, the apocalypse, and love. Like two sides of the same coin, Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead are very special, for very different reasons: Patricia is a wizard, drawn towards the Earth’s innate mystery and magic, and Laurence is a brilliant scientist, working on a device that may save (or doom?) the human race. As we peek in on the pair at various times throughout their lives, sometimes together, sometimes apart , their world is always in flux—struggling to stay alive as ancient magic make a final stand against humanity’s obsession with science —and its fate might be in their hands.
Anders’ characters— not just Patricia and Laurence, but everyone around them — are resoundingly complete, each like a little ball of yarn to be untangled. From Patricia’s sister Roberta (who likes to fire mice from her homemade rocket launcher), to Serafina (Laurence’s aloof girlfriend who works on emotional robots), to Ernesto (a witch bound to a bookstore who might be mother nature personified), they all have some small role to play in the larger narrative.
Starting out small—with a girl looking to become a witch, and a boy building a two-second time machine—All the Birds in the Sky grows in scope with each page, effortlessly balancing an intimate portrait of a young friendship and a larger story about the end of the world. Anders casually reveals how life is many-layered, even during the most trying times; the plot often takes a back seat to give extra weight and life to her characters—Laurence, Patricia, and their friends (and adversaries). I often found myself so absorbed with the intricacies of the Laurence and Patricia’s relationship, in particular, from its childish roots, to its intense passion in adulthood, that I found myself rushing through many of the novel’s genre conceits—the apocalypse, a truly unique take on a magic school— just to get back to their labyrinthine courtship. What world is worth saving if you don’t love the people who live there?
Coupling with snappy dialogue and a clever narrative that never settles down, All the Birds in the Sky is like a Wes Anderson film captured and put to paper, full of wit and larger-than life personalities. From high-ranking assassins to time-travelling watches, talking birds, and wormhole generators, it is as much a quaint surrealistic fantasy as an expansive Big Idea SF Extravaganza, and the scope is astounding. Patricia and Laurence are the guideposts through the a high-stakes story that is never quite what it seems, but Anders also crams wonderful world- and character-building moments into every economical paragraph. Take this description of the assassin Theodolphus Rose, tinged with Patricia’s adolescent voice—one of my favourite passages in the novel:
His name was Theodolphus Rose, and he was a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins. He had learned 873 ways to murder someone without leaving even a whisper of evidence, and he’d had to kill 419 people to reach the Number Nine spot in the NOA hierarchy. He would have been very annoyed to learn that his shoes had given him away, because he prided himself on blending with his surroundings. His was the gait of a mountain lion stalking the undergrowth, clad in the most nondescript black slippers and mountaineer socks. […] His mind ran countless battle scenarios, so that if any of the housewives, mall-walking seniors, or teenagers attacked him without warning Theodolphus would be ready.
Theodolphus had come to this mall looking for two special children, because he needed a pro bono hit to keep up his standing in the Nameless Order. To that end, he had made a pilgrimage to the Assassin Shrine in Albania, where he’d fasted, inhaled vapors, and gone nine days without sleep. And then he’d stared into the ornately carved Seeing Hole in the floor of the Shrine, and he’d seen a vision of things to come that still replayed in his nightmares. Death and chaos, engines of destruction, whole cities crumbling, and a plague of madness. […] At the center of this were a man and a woman, who were still children now. p. 45
Theodolphus comes to life with just a few keystrokes, hinting to the reader that bigger things are coming. The scope of this story is incredible, especially considering the book clocks in at just over 300 pages. Anders makes full use of every inch of canvas.
Her vision of the future is as weird as it is recognizable. By most measures, Laurence and Patricia live in a slightly more futuristic version of our own world: they take city buses, drink long after dark in the Haight, and troll social media. But between coffee shortages, superstorms, and sentient AIs, you become subtly, uncomfortably aware that not all is well in this timeline. In fact, it’s easy to interpret Anders’ imaginary dystopia as nothing short of prophetic. Control might be an illusion, but she’s keen to warn us not to meddle where we hold no authority.
“Who did this? Patricia said. “We need to find them. We need to turn them into ash and them blow them into space. We need to make them fucking pay. Tell me who did this.“
“Nobody,” Ernesto said. “Nobody and everybody. We all did this.” p. 226
Anders’ command of voice is masterful— the two protagonists are distinct, and, as they grow, she adjusts the narrative voice to match. In simple language, their childhood years play like a surreal fantasy — full of talking cats and rocket barns and running away from home, into an endlessly confusing and exciting world. From adolescence to adulthood, the prose shifts—sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly—to take on the qualities of those phases of life. It is profoundly nostalgic and awkward during their middle school years, cool and collected as they grow through their early twenties (like a post-apocalyptic sequel to The Breakfast Club), and winds up in full-on apocalyptic thriller mode, with all the elegance and humanity of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Anders’ ambition is clear, and she meets the challenge with such confidence and skill, I often found myself marveling that All the Birds in the Sky is only her first novel for adults.
Imagine if Wes Anderson and John Hughes co-wrote and directed Interstellar, replaced the space travel with a magic school, and hired Lev Grossman to write the novelization: that’s this book, but it is also unmistakably its own thing, unmistakably Anders. It’s a weird, warm, unsettling, and wonderful triumph.