All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016) – Patricia and Laurence are the “weird” kids. But no one realizes what that really means. Patricia is a witch who can talk to birds but has no control over her power. Laurence is a technological genius who can create almost anything. What makes them different draws them together, then threatens to destroy them and the rest of the planet.
Let me put these items right up front. Anders is a professional journalist, editor, and writer with credits from some high profile publications. Published by Tor Books, the novel won the 2017 Nebula and Locus awards, plus was a Hugo finalist.
So my question is this – why isn’t a better book?
To me, it reads like a second draft. The draft you get after you fix all the typos, punctuation and grammar issues with your first draft. The one after you’ve plugged the really big holes in your story. The second draft is the one where the polishing begins (a process that may take multiple more drafts). It’s also the one where you realize you haven’t explained everything clearly and you’ve left a couple (hopefully only a couple) story lines dangling. So you fix them to create your third draft.
Except that none of that stuff got fixed.
As I waded through the first 100 pages, I was trying to figure out what Anders was trying to create. It was going to straddle the fantasy/sci-fi fence, which I have no trouble with at all. But what KIND of book was it trying to be? It felt like there was a move towards some Terry Pratchett/Douglas Adams weird/whimsical, but it never committed to it. Is it a YA book? Not really. At times it felt like a middle grades book. But it never committed to that either. Turned out that was the least of my issues.
There are language inconsistencies. Most of the book is told in a casual, colloquial kid/teen/young adult style. Again, fine. So when Latinate words or phrases appear out of nowhere and for no clear reason, it was jarring. Laurence rubs his “occiput” at one point. At another time, a sternum was bifurcated. There’s no reason to use these words, there’s no set up for them. It’s inconsistent and unnecessary.
There are bizarre images used. At one point, Laurence’s personal school bully grabs him by the collar and is “swung like a shot put”. What? The shot put is not swung.
Characters are introduced with no explanation, are given something to do without cause, then shuffled off to the side, also without explanation. The prime example is the assassin, Theodolphus Rose. (Don’t even get me started on some of the names. Again, neither rhyme nor reason). There’s a vague reason he’s decided to kill our two leads, but it’s given no nourishment from the author to bloom. as for the organization to which he belongs? Mentioned multiple times, but never explored.
As I continued to read, the book struck me as a mash-up of other books. It begins with a taste of teenage angst stories, mixes in a taste of “A Wrinkle In Time”, then goes for the “Harry Potter” mode, and finally adds a good dose of “The Chronicles of Amber”. There were probably more, but I stopped caring halfway through. Every time Anders got rolling, and when she lets the story do its thing the book is enjoyable, she would drop another unpolished piece of storytelling in to mess things up.
There’s an interesting story here, with some characters I’d love to know more about. After 300+ pages, I felt frustrated and with more questions than answers. That always feels like an author trying to be clever.
How this mixed up piece of unpolished storytelling won all those awards is beyond me.
If you get through the first 100 pages, the book gets better. Never right, but better. I can’t quite bring myself to say you shouldn’t read it, but I can’t say you should either.