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All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

A review by Nalini Haynes

Patricia is always getting into trouble. One day she runs away from home into a forest. A bird talks to her and takes her to the Parliament, situated in an ancient tree. The birds ask her a question that she must answer before time runs out. She doesn’t know the answer and asks for more time. All the birds in the sky talk to her from time to time, more often as time runs out.

Lawrence is a geek who wants to stay indoors doing geek things but his parents want him to be outdoorsy so he pays Patricia to pretend they’re doing outdoor things together. Meanwhile, he’s building an artificial intelligence in his closet.

The pair become kind-of friends at primary school because they have no one else. And yet Lawrence doesn’t want to be tainted by association with Patricia and he fears her magic.

Then Theodore shows up. He’s an assassin determined to murder both children to save the world from a war he saw in a vision of the future. When others intervene because “we don’t kill children”, Theodore manipulates the children and their parents.

Years later, Patricia and Lawrence meet again. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket and they’re both trying to save it in their own ways. Unfortunately, their ways are too different.

Charlie Jane Anders is the editor-in-chief of i09, a geek website, so she has a deep understanding of geek tropes. All the Birds in the Sky is a novel that takes science fiction and fantasy tropes, mashes them together and subverts them.

Unfortunately, All the Birds in the Sky is a difficult read. Although the language is easy, it’s the way the story is told. It begins with the children entering a Carbonel-esque world (books by Barbara Sleigh) with talking animals leading them into an adventure. Lawrence’s story gave me Silver Crown vibes (book by Robert C O’Brien), possibly because he loses everything and his focus is technology.

Patricia goes off to witch school, which was more The Little Broomstick (by Mary Stewart) than Harry Potter (by J K Rowling) although Patricia’s comments about only wanting to go to a school that values friendship and loyalty alluded to HP.

The narrative skips many years. When we meet them again, THEN we see recaps of Patricia’s years, mostly in info dumps and angsting about family relationships. This kind of stutter-start story telling pervades the narrative from middle-school to the end of the novel. A sex scene opens then pauses for an info dump explaining that “X and Y broke up then Y and Z spent months hanging out, leading to this first-time sex”. As a reader, I didn’t fall in love with them as a couple and anticipate the consummation of their romance: it happens then I’m told why. Every time the narrative moves forward to interrupt itself with backstory and flashbacks, I was jolted out of the story.

There’s an apocalypse but most people seem to continue in middle-class American lives, eating tapas, buying coffee and pizza-to-go from various outlets, regardless of this catastrophe that’s destroyed civilization as we know it, killing central characters’ loved ones in the process and allegedly destroying society. Is this comedy or subverting the post-apocalyptic tropes? To me, this jarred, so it depends on the reader.

I finished All the Birds in the Sky over a week ago. I’ve struggled to write this review because I’ve been trying to figure out the story. Is it comedy? Perhaps I don’t relate to this form of comedy although the description of body hair during the sex scene is amusing. Is it Literature? I believe so: All the Birds in the Sky has hallmarks of science fiction Literature in that it takes established motifs and tropes, plays with them and twists them to suit the narrative. However, as a novel, it’s not for everyone. All the Birds in the Sky is recommended to readers who love analyzing and dissecting stories, who want new and different literature forms and can name the tropes incorporated into the story. In other words, if you’re an avid i09 follower, All the Birds in the Sky is a must-read.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Format: ebook
Publisher: Tor (Macmillan; Australian distributor: New South Books)

All the birds in the sky — birds fly in a sky with the title in block text

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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