Review: ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders (Titan/Tor)

AndersCJ-AllTheBirdsInTheSkyUKOne of the most anticipated novels of the year… fizzles

Patricia is a witch who can communicate with birds. Laurence is a mad scientist and inventor of the two-second time machine. As teenagers they gravitate towards one another, sharing in the horrors of growing up weird.

When they later reconnect as adults, Laurence is an engineering genius living in near-future San Francisco, trying to stop the planet failing apart through technological intervention. Meanwhile, Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the magically gifted, and works with her fellow magicians to secretly repair the earth’s ever growing ailments.

As they each take sides in a cataclysmic war between science and magic, All the Birds in the Sky sees Laurence and Patricia try to make sense of life, sex and adulthood on the brink of the apocalypse.

This novel is perhaps one of the most anticipated of the year — with glowing reviews proliferating around the internet, and praise coming in from such luminaries as Michael Chabon, expectations have been high pretty much since it was announced. Anders writes quite beautifully, at times, and there’s little doubt that she is an author of talent. I know a lot of people who have loved this novel. Unfortunately, however, All the Birds in the Sky failed to ever take off for me.

I wanted to like this novel. I really did. It sounded interesting, and like a new, promising take on the End of the World sub-genre. And, indeed, the book is populated by plenty of original spins on popular fantasy and urban fantasy tropes and ideas: magic school? Check. Inter-dimensional timey-wimey stuff? Check. Assassins and secret societies/orders? Check. However, there is a case to be made that it’s too busy, and too populated by disparate ideas and inventions — almost as if Anders wanted to just get everything into the novel. While many of the ideas are interesting, she packs so many of them into the novel that there just isn’t the space or time to develop them fully.

The first 150 pages or so (I read the UK edition), though, really didn’t work for me. I knew events were supposed to pick up, because much of the synopsis doesn’t take place until after the first third of the novel. The beginning felt dragged out, and much of it felt unnecessary — a feeling that didn’t go away after I finished the novel. There was also a bit of telegraphing of one thing in particular, which also wasn’t developed as well as I think it could have been. (Ah, I see we have entered the vague and somewhat unhelpful portion of the review…) Everything that happens after the two main characters have left their respective educational institutions is much better than what comes before, but by then much of my patience had worn a little thin.

Readers may find it refreshing that the novel is set in San Francisco, which is not the usual setting for this type of sci-fi/fantasy. There were times when it felt as if I was reading the first hipster sci-fi novel: the milieu is recognizably that of the trendy urban youth. Mostly, the tone around this was tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating — for example, there’s an amusing moment when Laurence attempts to style his beard into a Van Dyke, but instead manages something rather lop-sided.

One character really grated on me: Theodolphus, an assassin who features prominently in the first third(ish) of the novel. I didn’t like anything about his stand-alone chapters. In one instance, he’s infantalised, debating whether or not he’s allowed ice cream (as we learn, only good assassins who complete their assignments are allowed ice cream, which I found jarring in terms of tone and situation). Generally, the early chapters covering childhood and adolescence are written in a style and language that approximate how characters of these ages might themselves see things. This stylistic choice tends to bother me regardless of where I find it, which for me made the opening chapters feel disjointed and slightly annoying.

Perhaps, All the Birds in the Sky was a victim of the overall hype that accompanied its publication, and my thereby inflated expectations. Reading the blurbs on the paperback, though, I can’t help but wonder if I read the same novel as those other reviewers and authors.

Anders is undoubtedly a skilled writer — otherwise there’s no way I would have kept reading, let alone finished it. I think anyone reading this novel will come away with at least a sense that she is a great storyteller in the making. But, on the strength of this novel, there is still some way to go. Many of the ideas (important and not) felt underdeveloped; the characters weren’t always as interesting as I’d hoped; and the narrative was at times choppy, jerking forward in time with little-to-no warning.

While sadly disappointing, the novel nevertheless left me interested in reading what the author comes up with next.

*

All the Birds in the Sky is published in the UK by Titan Books (who provided the review copy), and Tor Books in the US. [The US edition has the same artwork, just a different blurb on the front cover.]

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5 thoughts on “Review: ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders (Titan/Tor)

  1. I was one of those people who loved this book, but I can see why it wouldn’t be for everyone. I think Anders tries to break away from convention in some ways, which could turn readers off. Also, I really hated Theodolphins too! Quite a strange story, but it worked for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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