Earlier this month, I re-read All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, which I enjoyed so much more on a second reading. I’ve wanted to talk more about it since, however, I’ve never really gelled with any book review approach I’ve previously taken.
An idea then came to me: what if I wrote my thoughts as a listicle? In my newsletter, I list 10 things I want to share from the past two weeks — mimicking Austin Kleon’s newsletter. So I thought I’d try using the same structure for a book review.
So here are 10 thoughts I have on this wonderful book:
- Charlie Jane Anders seamlessly blends fantasy with science-fiction. The world of All the Birds of the Sky is an Earth similar to our own, but it’s also a world where two-second time machines and AI co-exist with magic and a witch that talks to animals. It’s never jarring and always fun to read.
- The relationship between protagonists Patricia and Lawrence is the real backbone of the story and unquestionably the most compelling part of it. These awkward and terribly abused misfits find each other again and again, misunderstanding and falling out with each other at crucial moments within the plot and yet they understand each other better than anyone else ever could. This contradiction makes for flawed and complex characters, and I loved them both dearly.
- There’s a fluid approach to the third-person limited perspective the narrative is told through. Whilst the POV swaps mostly between Patricia and Laurence from chapter-to-chapter, CJA also drops in the perspectives of other characters at key moments. Most notably, CJA slips into the shoes of Theodolphus Rose — one of the main antagonists. It’s an approach to POV I’d be keen to emulate.
- I love that the novel is broken down into four parts — or rather four “books.” Maybe it’s because I grew up on the Classic Era of Doctor Who, but I love a four-act structure. Books 2-4 each have their own setups and conclusions that fit into the wider narrative, which also allows CJA to cross great lengths of time with ease.
- Speaking to ever more relevant fears of climate disaster, the stakes in this novel are apocalyptic. Patricia and Laurence belong to two separate camps who are both trying to “solve” the oncoming end of the world. However, their approaches are in direct conflict with each other. Laurence and his fellow scientists — all working under a rich Silicon Valley-type with delusions of grandeur — are building something that could give some of humanity a second chance. Meanwhile, the witches of the magical academy Eltisley Maze have their own device as a final solution to save nature. Both could have world-ending consequences.
- I feel the novel presents a more positive portrayal of AI than I’m accustomed to reading. I can’t elaborate without spoiling some of the biggest reveals in the book, but whilst the invasive implications of the AI are present there’s a more benevolent nature to it.
- Despite having a sizeable cast, I never felt overwhelmed by the number of names or lost track of who anyone was. Every character is distinctive.
- Both protagonists have very loathsome parents. Patricia also has an abusive sister to contend with as a child. I love it when a book makes me rage for all the right reasons. Intense emotional reactions are what I want when I read, and CJA successfully delivers hard-hitting scenes. I seethed, I smiled and I may even have sobbed once or twice.
- The magic system is a soft one, the sci-fi elements equally soft — if not softer. But I quite enjoy the softness and the flexibility it offers. Plus, there is a consistent logic and stakes to the technology and magic of the novel. I never felt cheated. Furthermore, there are two types of magic: Healer and Trickster — and despite what their names may suggest, the novel makes a point that this is not a binary of good and bad. Eltisley Maze is also made of two campuses, one for each type of magic. We don’t see as much of this interesting magic school as I’d like, but the plot tells us only what we really need to know so I can’t really fault this decision.
- CJA’s prose is beautiful and so compulsively readable. This was one of those unputdownable books for me, helped by CJA’s effortless approach to description I equally admire as much as I envy. The way she writes internal monologues is equally compelling and emotionally impactful.
For a more typical review, I’d recommend Jason Heller’s for NPR.
But the bottom line is: Charlie Jane Anders could very well become one of my favourite writers. I cannot wait to read her follow-up novel The City in the Middle of the Night. I also must check out her Even Greater Mistakes — her short story collection. And I may just check out Never Say You Can’t Survive — all about getting through hard times by making up stories.
I’ve also signed up to her newsletter and have read some of her past Tor articles, including what wrong lessons creators learned from Game of Thrones, why authors should play to their weaknesses and why sci-fi writers need to be writing about climate change.