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

When we first meet Patricia Delfine she is a young child and her story slips very quickly from realism into fairy-tale with talking birds and unnecessarily cruel parents and sibling. It is unclear what is reality and what is simply the work of an over-active imagination but Charlie Jane Anders’s first novel doesn’t stop to discuss this. Instead she leaves the reader with a choice – to take Patricia’s story at face value (talking birds and magical trees amid the petty tyrannies of school and childhood) or to reject it just as her peers and the adults around her reject it.

Which takes us to Laurence. Anders presents us with a choice here as well, but rather than fairy tales Laurence’s apparent escape into fantasy is via science-fiction. He has built himself a two-second time machine and is using broken up bits of old games consoles to create a super-computer. A kindly adult even lends him a Heinlein juvenile novel. Laurence too is stuck in a world that is neglectfully cruel to him, from parents wrapped up in their own mutual sense of failure to the same bullying cruelties as the same school as Patricia.

Laurence and Patricia are variations on the same theme – the introspective child who escapes into their own reality. Naturally they become friends and it is in this friendship that Anders begins to force the reader to reject the notion that either Patricia or Laurence are living in their own imaginations.

Hanging out a shopping mall Patricia and Laurence discuss the people about them – including one man who they decide is a secret assassin. This is exactly who he is, but an assassin forbidden to kill children despite his certain knowledge that he must prevent Patricia and Laurence from one day destroying the world…

The book takes us further into Patricia and Laurence’s lives from school years to adulthood and their contrasting relationship. Magic and technology clash and Patricia and Laurence find themselves both as rivals and collaborators.

It is hard to say more without spoiling this book. It is heartfelt, witty, clever and rejects genre definitions. In Patricia and Laurence the author discusses the role of both fantasy and science fiction as ways with which we engage with our worlds and imaginations. ‘Alchemical’ would seem to be the best name for the way it mixes these inherently incompatible elements together.

A genuine pleasure to read.

 

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11 comments

  1. David Brain

    Alchemy is an excellent word to use here – as with Harry Potter, I imagine that there is a deep reading of this that invokes a lot of alchemical imagery, whether or not Anders actually intended it!
    For me, the thing that stood out is that she was prepared to make pretty much all of her characters objectionable (including, to some extent, the protagonists) which, of course, makes them far more real. And she does it with a clear gender and racial blindness and a deliberate attempt to subvert those tropes wherever possible. So I imagine some people will set against it; that, of course, is their loss.
    If I read five better books than this in 2016 I shall be delighted.

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