Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel is about science, magic, and the need to work together for the sake of the world. Our two main characters are the embodiment of science and magic. Laurence is a gifted geek who, in 8th grade, figured out how to make a wristwatch time machine. It could only take you 2 seconds into the future, but still…. Patricia is a magic and nature geek who occasionally can talk to animals and once spoke with a tree. In adulthood, Laurence and Patricia will struggle with their feelings for each other and with their conflicting ideas about how to save the imperiled world.
The story starts brilliantly, like a quirky, funny YA novel. Laurence and Patricia are both 8th graders at Canterbury Academy. Laurence is beaten up and dumpster-ized on a regular basis by the class bully, while Patricia is snarked at and snubbed by the girls. Home life for each of them is pretty miserable, too. They end up together by default and find that spending time together is pretty cool. Eventually, they trust each other enough to confide their secrets. On a trip to the mall, the two kids spend time imagining background stories for the shoppers based on their footwear, and thus we are introduced to Theodolphus Rose, member of the Nameless Order of Assassins. Theodolphus has had a vision of the end of the world, and his vision shows Laurence and Patricia clearly at the center of it all; thus, he decides he must kill one or both of them. It is, however, a violation of the rules of the Nameless Order of Assassins to kill children (this is revealed to him in the funniest scene in the book, which happens to take place at The Cheesecake Factory). Theodolphus resolves to find a way to get these kids one way or another, and so he becomes the guidance counselor at Canterbury. A series of events bring misfortune and harm to Patricia and Laurence. They narrowly miss death but are separated from one another for more than a decade. Laurence gets to attend the high school and university of his dreams, fulfilling his geek fantasies, while Patricia is whisked away to Eltisley Maze, the school for witches.
Thus ends the first third of the book, which seemed to me at this point to be an entertaining blend of Roald Dahl and Harry Potter. When Anders shifts ahead some 12-15 years later, the YA-leanings of the novel disappear. Her characters, who both end up in San Francisco, live in a world on the edge of destruction due to human stupidity and forces of nature. Laurence is an incredibly successful tech developer and/or computer geek and a key member of the Ten Percent Project, which is the brainchild of one Milton Dirth. Dirth, Laurence and a team of other young geeks (who seem to have backgrounds in robotics, physics, and probably a lot of other areas that can be subsumed under “geek” and “science”) are looking for a way to get 10% of humans off earth and onto another world when planet Earth inevitably self-destructs. Meanwhile, Patricia is working for a caterer and doing random acts of magical kindness in order to make up for some horrible event that happened when she was in school. Her handlers, a group of very powerful witches and wizards, are worried about her acts of “aggrandizement” (trying to shape the world too much rather than going with the flow) and about the nature of her magical power. Patricia is catering a tech company event when Laurence, in a hostile takeover that reads very much like a pirate commandeering another ship, crashes the party and the two friends are awkwardly reunited.
The plot lines involving the relationship between Patricia and Laurence and the deteriorating conditions on earth begin to intersect in ingenious ways. Since each character has a secret that only the other knows, and since they shared such a deep bond in childhood, they seem to be almost indestructibly linked. Yet, their “missions” are at odds with each other, and each character is surrounded by a group of co-workers who view their side and their actions as the last desperate hope for the planet. I like that there is no obviously right side here (at least to me there wasn’t), and the ultimate resolution is reached at great cost. While science and magic are the systems at work, the novel is essentially about relationships, how important it is to have one person who really understands you and is there for you. It’s about love!
I enjoyed the novel very much but I do have a couple of quibbles. One is the change in tone from a sort of quirky kid-friendly novel to a more mature, not YA novel. It probably won’t interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of this book, but it might keep it off the bookshelves in school libraries (there are sex scenes that I suspect would be deemed inappropriate, but who knows, maybe I’m wrong). That is a shame because the themes in this book would resonate with middle schoolers and could lead to some in-depth discussions on a variety of topics. The other complaint has to do with a couple of characters, Theodolphus and Diantha, whose roles seemed imperfectly formed. Diantha was a classmate of Patricia’s who was the ringleader for the horrible event that happened when they were in school. Diantha is brought back at the end of the story, but her role, the necessity of her being there, is unclear, unless it was just to show that Patricia has matured. I also felt that Theodolphus was under-utilized at the end. He reappears under unusual circumstances in San Francisco, is neutralized by Patricia’s mentors and then shows up in a prison. I don’t understand what he is doing there, why they undid the curse, or why he and the assassins didn’t get to run amok in SF and complicate things even more between Laurence and Patricia. I really like the character Theodolphus! We need more Theodolphus. He steals every scene he’s in.
Other than that, All the Birds in the Sky is a thoroughly enjoyable read about some pretty heavy stuff — the end of the world and relationships. It’s smart, funny, and provocative.