This is such a weird book that it totally made sense that there was a love story between an Yggdrasil tree and an artificial intelligence computer (AI). This book is a delightfully weird mix of magic, sci-fi, YA and the dichotomy between magic and technology, all brought together with the beautiful lyrical title ‘all the birds in the sky’.
I listened to the audiobook of this story, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan. Audiobooks are amazing because who doesn’t like to be read to? And with an audiobook that is always possible, even when there is no obliging friend nearby. Additionally, it really helps to make a boring activity less so, such as cleaning, which I unfortunately have to do a lot because it’s my job. Personally, I always have to get used to a narrator, because it is a voice I’m not used to, and with Alyssa it was the same. Especially because she made some of the characters, especially Patricia, sound really whiney and annoying in the beginning of the book. The beginning of the book was slow at any rate. But soon I became fascinated by the story, because so much is happening at the same time!
The story is about two people, Patricia and Laurence, who meet as children, and connect over the loneliness they both have, because they are both outsiders in their own way. Patricia spoke with a bird in the woods one day and suffered from that, because nobody believed her. However, she keeps believing she actually talked to a bird. Laurence is a nerdy boy with strict parents who do not understand his passion for science. They worry because he does not make friends. At a certain moment he sneaks away to see a rocket launch and he invents a two-second time machine. Also he eventually builds the AI mentioned before in his closet. Naturally, as they should in a YA novel, the two outsiders connect and become best friends. This goes all swimmingly until the day Laurence is packed away towards a militaristic boarding school to become a ‘normal’ boy. The only good thing that happens on that school is that Laurence manages to give live to his AI. Further on, the school is horrible and at a certain moment his life is in danger when he gets locked in a closet as punishment. Meanwhile Patricia discovers more about her magical abilities. She even gets the opportunity to go to a magic school to develop her skills, but only if she leaves immediately. She begs to be allowed to stay for a short while to save Laurence, because she knows he is in danger. Saving Laurence is the last thing she does before she goes off to magic school, and it will be years before the two see each other again. At this book the book had my attention, because magic schools are always interesting to read about, however interestingly enough Charlie Jane Anders does not talk much about the school. This was a shame I thought.
Patricia and Laurence represent two ‘parties’, or sides in this story, namely magic versus science, both working towards the same goal: the earth is in danger of ecological breakdown. Both sides are trying to find a solution for the problem. After many years apart, Patricia and Laurence re-connect with each other, and their friendship symbolizes the potential of the two ‘sides’ to work together for a solution. Originally there might be more interest in working against each other, because of a deeply-rooted distrust between the two parties. Patricia and Laurence do not have a relationship immediately, because Laurence already has a girlfriend. Halfway through the book Patricia and Laurence get together anyway, around the time something horrible happens with the planet and shit gets real.
The magic versus technology is nicely executed in this book. The science, for example, is innovative enough to be interesting, but plausible. There is a super fancy personal AI computer everybody owns at a certain point which maximises your life experiences by plotting everything in your life, such as guiding you to places to eat. At those places the computer has even calculated who you will meet and should be friends with to have maximum enjoyment of your life, a bit creepy, I know. This innovation reminded me a lot of the google glasses and other smartphone-related developments. The magic school is interesting as well. Its educational system is based on a balance between healing and trickery, which is a balance every magician should keep. Every magician has the danger of ‘Aggrandizement’, which in this book means that the urge towards trickery overtakes, and one starts to do magic to gain personal power. The healing side of magic, which manifests in helping people without self-interests, keeps the trickery side in check.
This is shown when, a few years later into the story, Patricia has finished her magic schooling and is living in San Francisco. During the night she walks around the city and saves people from unhappiness with her magic. In the daytime she has annoying jobs to pay the rent. Because of the danger of Aggrandizement she is not allowed to gain any compliments or positive outcomes from the magic she does, because it might lead to arrogance, miss-use of magic and general destruction of the established magician society. Basically the concept tells about the danger of being too proud of one’s abilities as a magician, because that would lead to ‘getting airs’ and believing one can, and should, use magic to gain personal power. Consequently, one is not allowed to do any magic for their personal benefits. The tendency towards Aggrandizement in magicians is kept in check by a board of magicians. Somehow they believe Patricia is in particular danger of Aggrandizement. When Patricia and Laurence meet again their friendship is prohibited, because they are representatives of two different parties in the world and any relationship between the two is dangerous. Laurence, in the meantime, has become a genius whiz-kid kind of guy and works in a very prestigious lab where they invent new technologies, such as an anti-gravity machine. He has his own troubles, because he has a beautiful girlfriend of whom he does not understand why she loves him, and he is trying to save humanity from an ecological disaster.
Part of this book revolves around a looming climatic disaster, which makes this a very interesting take on the dystopic genre, because the dystopic future described in this book is one potentially close to our own future. Events in this book are set somewhere in the next 20-30 years, I would say. It is a climatic dystopia full of epic devastating storms and ecological degradation, as mentioned before. Halfway through the book there is a superstorm which makes clear how bad the status of the earth actually is. Also in the dystopia elements of this book, the idea of magic versus science becomes clear because both sides have a radical different solution to the problem, which I of course won’t tell, because spoilers. So, in conclusion, the technology in this book was plausible and the climate of our planet is already showing some similar problems to the ones in this book, which makes this book a combination between a warning and entertainment, which is an amazingly ambitious attempt of Charlie Jane Anders. Wouldn’t you call that Aggrandizement?
Aggrandizement award because this book has high ambitions, and delivers
Charlie Jane Anders, all the birds in the sky (New York, 2016)
Bella G. Bear