LitStack Review: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

by Sharon Browning

All the Birds in the SkyAll the Birds in the Sky
Charlie Jane Anders
Tor Books
Release Date:  January 26, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-7994-8

A young girl who talks to birds; a young boy who builds a two second time machine in his room.  Two hideously awful middle school experiences.  A member of the Nameless Order of Assassins who knows 873 ways to kill someone.  And the end of the world.  Charlie Jane Anders’ novel All the Birds in the Sky is a perfect blend of science and magic, a cautionary tale of annihilation through climate change and a tribute to the enduring ties of unexpected friendship.  What’s not to like?

When Patricia was six, she attempted to save a sparrow with a broken wing from her perfect yet nefarious older sister, and in doing so, found she could not only speak to the bird but also to other creatures, as well.  Later she has a redemptive experience that convinces her she is fated to become a witch, meant to serve nature.  Laurence is a tech-genius who goes from playing video games to writing his own code; by his early teens he was building a supercomputer in his locked bedroom closet, much to his parents’ consternation.  Both are social outcasts – painfully so (and you thought your middle school experiences were bad!) – so by default they end up thrown together and an unlikely friendship develops, one that for a time keeps their abysmal lives bearable.

Eventually the two go their separate ways, but over the years their paths continue to cross.  The world around them is alternately amazing and full of dire warnings about the future, and the competing societies in which Patricia and Laurence move (no longer loners) are each convinced that their respective viewpoints have the means to save the collapsing world.  Yet their friendship, at times distant, at times contentious, endures.  In the end, though, it is this very friendship that may not only doom Patricia and Laurence, but life as we know it.

The writing in All the Birds in the Sky is delightfully quick and quirky, as one might expect in this day and age of social media (not surprisingly, and definitely not detrimentally, author Charlie Jane Anders is Editor-in-Chief of i09, a popular nerdish website that “covers science, culture, and the world of tomorrow”).  It cavorts between the real and surreal, fact and fantasy so straightforwardly that we happily go along for the ride.

For instance, I had no problem accepting right off the bat that a six year old girl could hear a wounded bird speaking, but I wondered about the audacity of that same bird clinging to her shoulder while she frantically scaled a tree to escape a bullying tomcat.  And I totally believed in an assassin in disguise who, after seeing a vision of “a war between magic and science that would leave the world in ashes”, would follow the children destined to become the adults at the epicenter of the chaos to a local mall in an effort to stave off that bleak future; however, after ordering a brownie sundae at The Cheesecake Factory in order to fit in, he fears that the treat might have been poisoned, yet eats it anyway because “life would not be worth living if he couldn’t eat ice cream from time to time without worrying it was poisoned.”   Of course, he misses his opportunity to take out Patricia and Laurence by becoming violently ill  – the ice cream indeed been poisoned (apparently his assassin’s order frowns on the murder of minors).  To top it all off, the hapless assassin is banned from The Cheesecake Factory for life.

It could happen.

Oh, it’s certainly not all fun and fancy, not at all.  There is moralizing in this book, and discussions of magic versus technology, cause versus effect, assistance versus vanity, guilt, responsibility, even healing magic versus trickery, but they are not done while navel gazing; instead, the talks happen over elf-shaped bongs, or in the midst of an argument or perhaps during a confession, or even while having a “conversation” with an IA tentatively named CH@NG3M3.  What doesn’t occur in this book is a clear delineation of right versus wrong or the validity of nature over technology, or science trumping magic.  Instead there are simply well meaning efforts from opposing viewpoints whose main damning quality is in thinking that they may be the only players capable of changing the rules of the game.  Ah, there is so much to be learned at the end of the world!

And maybe, just maybe -if it’s like what we see in All the Birds in the Sky – the end of the world won’t be so bad, after all.

~ Sharon Browning

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Diane LaGrone 8 March, 2016 - 9:14 am

As a middle school teacher, I rarely have time to read all the books that sound good for my students. Because of that, I know I miss opportunities to share great books with them. Any input on using this WITH middle schoolers? 7th or 8th?

Sharon Browning 8 March, 2016 - 1:11 pm

Hmmm, I’m not so sure, Diane. It kind of depends on the class. While the overall theme is fine for middle-schoolers, and the experiences at the first part of the book (the middle-school and high school years) would be great discussion starters, there is adult language and adult situations (including a well done but not discrete sex scene), and a bit of debate about religion that could be problematic (not that that’s a bad thing). I guess as a mother of two kids who went through public schools (thank heavens for wonderful teachers in our public schools!), I would be a little hesitant to suggest this for a middle school class; high school, maybe, or select students as a special project, perhaps. But I do tend to err on the side of caution. It *is* a wonderful book, and could be a really invigorating read for teens, given the right environment!

Diane LaGrone 8 March, 2016 - 2:13 pm

Thanks loads for the insight. I find so many books that would be great for my middle schoolers…EXCEPT for one or two scenes. I just have to wonder if publishers consider that. Probably not but I sure wish we had more of these great books without the “scenes.” Oh, maybe a “school” version?

Sharon Browning 8 March, 2016 - 9:14 pm

I dunno, Diane. I certainly see where you’re coming from, but I think that the book would suffer with taking those scenes out. But I admire you for looking for books that will make an impact with your students. Keep up the good fight!

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