All the Birds in the Sky
by Charlie Jane Anders
Cover Artist: Design by Will Staehle / Unusual, Co.
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765379948
Date: 26 January 2016 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
All the Birds in the Sky is a hard to categorize novel by Charlie Jane Anders, the editor in chief of io9, an online commentary/news site about science fiction and fantasy (and related topics). The book combines fantasy and science fiction, YA and adult elements, and both humorous and serious content.
The book features two main characters--Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstrong. It opens with a six-year-old Patricia discovering she is a witch who can talk to animals. At the same age, Laurence invents a time machine that can propel him two seconds into the future and runs away from home to visit a group of MIT students building a rocket. The two meet in middle school, where both are bullied by classmates and misunderstood by their parents. They form a tentative friendship as mutual outsiders and Laurence even gives her a way to contact the supercomputer he is building in his closet.
But when Laurence witnesses Patricia doing actual magic, speaking to a cat, he finds it weird and the two stop talking to each other. Meanwhile, a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins, who has seen a vision of a future war between magic and science the two will cause when adults, disguises himself as the school guidance counselor to set the two against each other (since the Order has a strict ban on killing minors). After some adventures, including an attempt by Laurence's parents to enroll him in a military school, the two part and do not see each other for ten years.
When they meet up again, Patricia has become a wanderer who uses her magic to rescue people, and to kill on orders from her superiors. They constantly warn her against aggrandizement. Laurence has grown up to be a technology wunderkind who is helping a billionaire, Milton, use science to save a dying world. The remaining two-thirds of the book is devoted to their developing relationship despite the growing conflict between their respective forces of magic and science and the worsening collapse of civilization. Both magic and science develop escape plans to either destroy humanity to save nature or for a handpicked few to travel via wormhole to an unspoiled world.
The author does a great job developing both main characters and creating a convincing relationship between them. The reader understands what attracts the two to each other, beyond their shared past and isolation, as well as the forces that separate them. Both have deep insecurities from their childhoods and concerns over the directions their superiors are forcing them to go. She also creates an interesting magic school that is not a copy of Hogwarts by combining a formal British style academy with a completely unstructured program called The Maze. The author is less successful showing the moral dilemmas confronting Laurence's science team and their willingness to abandon, rather than save, Earth.
All the Birds in the Sky is well worth reading. Ultimately, it seems to be more fantasy than science fiction as the science behind Laurence's inventions are rarely discussed, nor are there attempts to build on them. For instance, although Laurence is not the only one who has built a two-second time machine, we never see any experiments to expand its range, nor does Laurence try to build another supercomputer.
It is worth noting that unlike too many fantasy novels these days, All the Birds in the Sky is complete in itself. Readers who like interesting characters, friendship and romance, and non-traditional genre-blending will greatly enjoy this book.