Book Review: All the Birds in the Sky
Normally I wouldn't pick up a book like All the Birds in the Sky. Witches aren't normally my cup of tea, nor are contemporary fantasies. But I was hell-bent on reading all the Hugo Award nominees this year (AND this book won the Nebula and Locus awards already), so I rolled the dice and bought it.
All the Birds in the Sky is the tale of a girl and a boy as they grow up. The girl, Patricia, is a powerful witch, while the boy, Laurence, is a whiz-kid scientist. After spending a terrible childhood together, the two children drop out of each other's lives - only to be reunited many years later in San Francisco and rekindle their relationship. The world is dying, and Patricia's witch coven and Laurence's scientist pals have very different ideas on how to save it, ideas which will lead to an inevitable (and deadly) clash.
After finishing All the Birds in the Sky, I can see why it won the Nebula and the Locus. The prose has a very literary feel to it, an almost fairytale quality that is endearing even as Anders talks about science and huge disasters afflicting the world. It's beautiful without being overwhelming, and it conveys a childlike sense of wonder that grows with the characters.
As I said above, witches aren't normally my cup of tea, and they still aren't. Patricia's coven in this book (and the portrayal of witchcraft in general) don't appeal to me. Her fellow witches are constantly chastising her for using her abilities to help others, warning of the dangers of Aggrandizement. Apparently this all ties back to an incident in Siberia, which is revealed about two thirds of the way through the novel, but I couldn't figure out why everyone blamed Patricia for the incident. She had some culpability, sure, but the level of blame placed on her shoulders seemed outsized.
Which leads me to something very frustrating about his novel: the whole first third, dealing with Patricia and Laurence's childhoods. It reminded me of a Roald Dahl novel initially, but then basically any adult in the first third behaved like an idiot. Look, there are definitely bad parents out there, and many children do feel alone. But many adults are sometimes also caring individuals with eyeballs. I find it really hard to believe that Patricia in particular could take so much blame for things she didn't do and have no one even reach out to discuss it with her - especially when it's clear her sister is tormenting her and the other students take pleasure in her pain. The level of adult cluelessness is almost comical.
The portrayal of other children, however, is spot on. Man, kids can be cruel.
I've kind of neglected Laurence thus far, so let's talk about him for a second. He's simultaneously frustrating and also amusing; he's a douchebag, but a self-aware one. He knows he can be an ass, and he knows he's probably not good enough for the women he courts. He lets Patricia down several times over the course of the novel, a fact he's eminently aware of. Yet despite this, he kinda comes around at the end. He's never 100% likeable, but he feels fully realized as a character - because let's face it, we all know That Guy.
Plot-wise, the book has better moments and worse moments. Most of the better ones lie at the junction of science and magic, one of the book's core themes and an interplay Anders handles deftly. A great example is Patricia saving Laurence's ass after he and his team stupidly decide to run a trial without running appropriate tests first. Patricia's interactions with Laurence's nascent AI are also highlights.
Sadly, I'd put the climax as one of the worse ones. It's an unsatisfying ending, not-quite-cliffhanger, not-quite-closure, but just enough of both to make it sit uncomfortably in my stomach after reading. I wish Anders had chosen to go full-on cliffhanger if she was going to dangle unresolved plot threads; without that, the ending feels kind of "meh" for me.
Final verdict: All the Birds in the Sky is an enjoyable read, particularly if you like fairytale-esque contemporary fantasy. While I will probably read the sequel, it's definitely not my favorite book in the Hugo pool.