When I was getting my BA in Creative Writing in 2013, I went through several drafts of a final thesis—two collections of interconnected stories and one novel—until I finally settled on a direction. And although the project I ultimately chose was important to me then, it’s my first attempt that remains my favorite. My first try was a collection of tales about an epic clash between the worlds of science and fantasy, one that would end with a doomed world that couldn’t be saved by one side or the other. I ditched the collection because I couldn’t wrap my head around the epic scale I had built for my characters or find a way to circumvent it.
Years later, after reading Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel, All the Birds in the Sky, I realize that I should’ve been focusing on my characters, telling their stories, chronicling their reactions to a drastically changed world, and weaving the poetry of their lives into the much bigger narrative—that one day, no matter what we rest our faith on, our time on this planet will just be up. Anders wields this narrative masterfully, as she tells us the stories of Patricia and Laurence, two people who cross paths at the most important moments in their lives and who may in fact hold the keys to saving the world.
Anders approaches her characters with intense sentiment, whether that be love or fear, but without ever becoming sentimental. I got the sense that she really enjoyed writing these characters, as she pushed them through trial after trial (social, professional, and mystical), and that in turn made me love her characters. All the Birds in the Sky is, above all else, a character-driven drama about ties that bind.
The novel gives us the full spectrum of the characters’ lives. We are first introduced to Laurence and Patricia as children, as they deal with parents who are neglectful of their needs and wants. It’s immediately apparent that the kids are a bit “weird,” that they’re not quite fitting into the mold. Patricia, who discovers that she can talk to animals and is destined to become a witch, is no match for her big sister Roberta’s perfection—the good grades, the ladylike posture, and the mild manner. On the other hand, Patricia is adventurous, with “perpetual grass stains on her torn overalls” and is already an outsider at school because “she was too hyper, made nonsense jokes, and wept when anyone’s balloon (not just her own) got popped.” The writer gives us these characters in funny little quips.
Laurence is a genius and, like most of his caliber, is terribly misunderstood. While he’s already busy building supercomputers and time machines, his parents worry that he spends too much time in his room and in front of a screen. They want him to go outside and make friends—you know, like a “normal” kid. Throughout the opening chapters, the parents try to force their children to conform, but it’s clear that both of these characters have different destinies.
The first two sections of the book are actually quite painful to read, as we follow the characters through high school, in scenarios of bullying all too rooted in realism. Laurence and Patricia are ostracized, hurt, and neglected for being different. And even when there appears to be someone who understands and accepts them, it isn’t at all what it seems. So it’s up to the characters themselves to fight for who they are in the face of adversity, because no one else will speak up for them. And I cheered them on and grew to love them, celebrating their victories when they finally came.
The latter half of the book is A LOT of fun, a bit more lighthearted than the first, despite Earth’s dire situation. There are menial jobs, rents to pay, dates to go on, and even the occasional bong to smoke. Wild concepts in both science and magic occupy the two distinct worlds of the book, including doomsday machines, timey wimey wibbly wobbly experiments, and crazy spells. And Anders fills the grand scale of her narrative with smaller, more personal moments too, giving us lots of funny exchanges between her characters—and especially technology. In fact, the book’s present isn’t much different from our own, as Laurence and Patricia traverse a world obsessed and dependent on technology. And although Patricia and Laurence’s philosophies differ quite a bit in the overall story, they both embrace the gadgets at their disposal when it comes to connecting with others—and the writer expertly ties how this technology is vital to their connection.
There is also plenty to say of the way magic users interact with nature in a world they claim to be uniquely connected to. My favorite examples of this are when Anders introduces us to the great and powerful witches and magicians that mentor Patricia, humans so strong in their abilities that they can’t quite connect with the outside world due to the nature of their powers. And even those leaders in Laurence’s world of science can’t see the damage they might ultimately wrought if they go through with their plan to “save” the world.
Ultimately, although Patricia and Laurence are on opposite sides in the battle to save the planet, their connection drives the book, and I enjoyed every moment I spent watching them grow together. Anders writes late in the book:
They were the only two weirdos at this awful meat locker of a school and they couldn’t be there for each other the way they wanted to, but they tried. And then they grew up and met each other again, and this time Patricia had her whole society of witches, who helped people and only had one rule, against being too proud. And somehow, even though Patricia had her magician friends and Laurence had his geeky science friends, they were still the only ones who could figure each other.
Every loving moment, apology, heartbreak, laugh, and tear between friends is important. And fantastic. Anders gives us a perfect example of what these connections mean to people, even if it will all be forgotten in the larger scheme of things. The important thing is that the connection existed in the first place.
You can find an excerpt of All the Birds in the Sky here!