The production department at Tor Books is really earning their keep. That cover is an exercise in sheer, simplistic elegance for All the Birds in the Sky, one of the hot titles making the reviewing rounds. When I heard it was written by Charlie Jane Anders, she of the triptych name and editor-in-chief of Gawker’s geek site wonderland, io9, I couldn’t help but imagine the pressure of being both a visible critic and author. I get sweaty just thinking about it, but with this sci fi/fantasy grab bag, Anders can put away the deodorant.
The story tracks the intertwining lives of Patricia Delfine and Lawrence Armstead, charting their trajectories as rising players in a war between Magic and Science from their years of awkward childhood to semi-functional adults. Almost immediately, Patricia learns she is a witch who can speak to birds, while Lawrence is a tech prodigy, churning out a two-second time machine and a glorified AI spambot. Early on the tone is a touch misleading, reading like an overly-anesthetized YA novel with the too-cutesy bird names, cardboard cut-out bullies, and oblivious parents. But the novel picks up momentum as the children separate and stumble blindly into adulthood, with Patricia escaping to magic school and Lawrence disappearing into an enigmatic tech corp.
Anders delivers most of the insanity in a matter-of-fact style, dropping in bizarre details about this dying Earth analogue in favor of Rowling-esque worldbuilding. Hogwarts or The Capitol this is not. Instead, our characters mostly live in near-future San Francisco in a world fraught with apocalyptic environmental events and relationship disasters. You can practically feel the hipsters and start-up coders perched on each shoulder as you read, arguing about the ethics of emotional robots at bad parties or searching for romance over steaming cups of organic, free-trade coffee.
The parallels to Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s trilogy are unavoidable, another big critic name tackling 20-somethings in a world of disillusionment, cynical snark, and raw emotional wounds that dig into the feelings. All the Birds has that same louche, loose plotting style, leaping about and splashing in the timestream, strange and disconnected strands occasionally picking up and reconnecting in odd, unpredictable ways. Not every event pays off though, including a delightfully absurdist subplot with an ice cream-loving assassin that goes nowhere and an early world fate-determining koan. The book has the feeling of one of those random word meme generators, though you can feel Anders’ efforts to hold it all together. The whole thing seems purposely undisciplined, the plotting equivalent of spending hours to get effortlessly-tousled bed hair. Sometimes you think the central romance could be solved with the age-old solution of just talking to each other.
But you can’t make an omelette this ambitious, this messily kitchen sinky without risking a few eggs. There are instances of pure poetry in the writing, jumping out of the clear prose with naked longing and effervescent humor among a diverse cast of characters. My favorite part includes a Caddy, a next-next-next-generation Blackberry/iPhone type that optimizes and itemizes every part of our lives in a way that feels like both a natural extrapolation and inevitable fact. I was scared, horrified, and wished I had one. Much of Anders’ work reads this way. She’s a fortune teller laying all her cards on the table, some purely true, some full of crap, always entertaining, never boring.