Book Review: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
All the Birds in the Sky is a book I would never have come across on my own - which would've been a shame. When my friend Didi announced his WOC and Trans Author Book Review Contest two weeks ago, I was coming to the end of a book and wanted a change of pace. His offer:
If you list 5 works you like in the comments, I will recommend a specific work by an author who is a woman of color, a trans person, or both.
Unfortunately, my entry is late to the contest, but the recommendation absolutely deserves acknowledgement.
My top-five list provided for recommendation's sake:
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
The Time In-Between, Maria Duñez
Stardust, Neil Gaiman
Uglies, Pretties, Specials... Series by Scott Westerfield (YA)
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
A mix of strong female leads, Bechdel Test-passing historical fiction, a bit of a young adult vibe, a dash of dystopian sci-fi, and a healthy dose of fantasy.
All the Birds in the Sky, a sci-fi/fantasy love story crossing from young adult to dystopian planetary collapse in four parts.
Before this challenge, I hadn't thought about the racial or gender diversity of my author choices. I tend to read female authors as I am naturally (narrowly) drawn to a strong female lead or supporting character written from a person with experience. That last comment may be, in some way, discriminatory. Sometimes, I'm still not sure how 'woke' I am when it comes to gender biases, but I am committed to learning.
Needless to say, Didi chose a perfect piece with an author whose life I would've have considered much otherwise. Charlie Jane Anders is transgender and genderqueer and of course, why on Earth would I be able to tell the difference?
Charlie Jane narrates like many authors I've read before, but mashes genres and bends readability rules like it's her full-time job. Her casual language use is refreshing at times, but overwhelming at others. I could never claim to know what a writer's true intentions are, but I felt the narrative attempting to bridge a gap.
That gap being between modern young readers with actual reading.
As a fan of the classics and a regular haunt in the historical fiction section, I'm unaccustomed to having my narrator say "shit," "motherfucker," and "What a stupid fucking idea," incessantly. I'm not much for profanity on my own time, and reading it seemed like supurfluous effort to make my millennial brain feel at home.
I must acknowledge her audacity to meld together sci-fi and fantasy in the most direct way: technology vs magic. Charlie Jane paints pictures throughout her story - of an enormous tree, nestled deep within the wood and covered with every breed of bird imaginable; of delicate pieces of everyday carry technology called Caddies, by far the most interesting invention in the story; and of immense natural disasters as the result of increased global climate insecurity.
What took away from it all, the creativity and ingenuity and beautiful language, was the lack of time I had, as a reader, to connect with any story elements long enough to care.
After completing the book, I made an effort to get to know Charlie Jane Anders a bit better. In this Inverse online article, she shares her thoughts on taking the noticeable narrative and storyline risks:
Interviewer: Is this connected to the shifting points of view from different characters?
Yeah, I spent hours worrying that. There was a part of the book where Laurence and Patricia are at the mall; they’re sitting under the escalator looking at people’s feet, and they are just making up weird stories about the people, and then they make up a story about this one person and it turns out to be true, and then we jump POVs into that other person. But, there are a million articles on the internet saying that you can never do things like that. So I’m super, super glad that people were willing to trust me not to drop them halfway across the river. I thought I was gonna lose the reader, and I was really sweating over that.
Unfortunately, this is exactly where All the Birds in the Sky lost me.
There are more characters than I can remember off the top of my head with names, minor backstories, and some interaction with our main characters in this story. Their perspectives are introduced at the head of a chapter, as a name the reader has never seen before. They're found in groups with characters we've never met before, only to get to know them for three paragraphs before moving on.
They are the female character in the book who is only allowed to whine about everything thinking she's too prideful and her boyfriend always letting her down.
Laurence, as a main character, is beautifully developed. He's also a non-macho, emotionally-affected male whose thoughts we can relate to. I didn't just get to know Laurence's backstory, I learned his non-romantic worries with regards to his platonic female friendships, I learned about his commitment to the human race. But, when he makes an eternal sacrifice for his partner-protaganist Patricia (as mentioned above in bold), she accepts it clumsily and it's as if it was a waste.
As someone who adores magic, fiction and IRL, the interesting contrast of magic to technology was an interesting relationship to ponder. And, the end of the book provides a twist - if meagerly delivered and anti-climactic, that's worth a think or two. But, magic was an accessory to this story, a concept that was interesting against a palatably thought-out technology•device•contraption suite.
It's clear that Charlie Jane has a career in science fiction authorship and loves what she writes about. She has a knack for developing devices, playing on existing inventions, and imagining how technology could impact our lives on an even deeper level. But, her shallow depiction of magic using now-cliched constructs of "magical school" "contrasting 'schools' of magic" and "magical councils imposing unbelievably vague or aggressive laws on young people" made for an imbalanced setting.
More than anything - how much I liked the characters or enjoyed the narrative - I'm so glad I read this book.
The world of literature is not immune to the 'bubble effect.' If I continue to read the same genres, the same authors, the same author demographics... I'll stay in my otherwise uninformed bubble and not feel the challenge and thrill of a new story.
Thank you Didi for recommending this novel and for opening my eyes to the diversity of authors I'd sorely missed.
Take a look at your own shelf - are there any authors of color, male or female? Transgender or queer-identifying authors?
Consider branching outside your comfort zone and picking up a curve ball! Share your favorite book in the comments below and check out Didi's blog for regular commentary and occasional contests a literary nature.