All the Birds in the Sky
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Is Charlie Jane Anders a Trickster or a Healer? A bit of both I would say. Or rather, quite a bit of both. Those are the two rival factions in the world of magic in her first SF novel. Regardless of your preconceived notions of those descriptors, Healers are not always benevolent and Tricksters are sometimes sympathetic enablers. Although initially at odds with each other, they eventually merged and began cooperating both in training witches and in guiding their path later. They in turn also shared a mutual rival, science.
There are several levels to this book, both in literary structure as well as its approach to characterization. In the beginning I got the notion it would only be a children's story, or at least YA. Patricia Delfine is a precocious five year old with an active imagination. She begins to suspect she might be a witch, or at least that is what she is told by animals she can communicate with, but she later suspects that might have just been a dream. Laurence Armstead is a genius at science and engineering. He builds a time machine which enables him to jump two seconds into the future at the push of a button. He later builds his own computer, with the intent of creating the first AI. On the surface, they would seem totally incompatible, yet they form an uneasy alliance when they meet a few years later in junior high school. Both feel alienated from their parents, even more so from their classmates. Their relationship has its ups and downs, but they seem to always find their way back to each other. That is, until Patricia comes to the attention of the witch's school, and she's whisked away for training, leaving Laurence and her parents thinking she has run away from home.
Ten years pass. Laurence lives in San Francisco, working as a researcher for a high tech corporation looking to colonize other planets due to the negative prognosis for Earth's future. He is surprised, but delighted, to encounter Patricia again. She works a range of menial jobs to pay the bills, but her actual vocation is as a witch working with a consortium of others. Anders did a good job of advancing their personalities emotionally. They are noticeably more mature, while at the same time they have retained some of their social awkwardness. As children and as adults, they have felt adrift, disconnected from almost everyone and everything else around them. It's a wonder they were ever friends, since he does not understand her magic and she has no interest in science. Both have been dating others, but eventually they come together as a couple...only to immediately be torn apart again by another unexpected occurrence. When next they meet, both harbor resentments since they realize their divergent paths have put them at cross purposes. Much could have been avoided if only they had trusted and confided in the other.
The book is at times extremely whimsical, at others profoundly philosophical. It balances two diametrically opposed natures of man, from intellectual curiousity to emotional vulnerability. Echoes of other authors came to mind, particularly Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut, although I wouldn't venture a guess as to the author's intent or her influences. Only one complaint. In the opening scenes, Patricia was tasked with answering a question. Through the years she forgot about it, only to be reminded when the question is asked again by someone else. It comes up a third time at the climax. I had been expecting a remarkable revelation as to its merit and meaning, but was disappointed to find the question was meaningless, and that "I don't know" was an acceptable answer. Then again, perhaps that is actually a profound answer. Maybe our hope is to admit we don't know, but are ready to learn. Highly recommended.
UPDATE: Nominated for at least three awards; Nebula (which it won, announced May 20, 2017), Hugo & Locus.
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