Wednesday, February 3, 2016

All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I have been looking forward to reading Charlie Jane Anders first major novel ever since Tor announced it was coming out. Anders has written some terrific short fiction, one of them won a Hugo (Six Months, Three Days). What do I really love about Anders work? Her voice speaks to me a deeply connected very geeky way. The Time Travel Club was about a group of people getting together in a basement to discuss adventures in time travel - all of them are lying out of their teeth except for one person. Palm Strike's Last Case is like an interplanetary Batman tale. As Good As New was an interesting wrinkle on the genie in a bottle story.  I could go on and on, the full bibliography can be found on isfdb.

What do I like about Anders' work? I find her prose almost effortless to read and her characters are usually both fascinating and relatable. Her genre related inventions are quite unique, new riffs on old tropes. Some writers just suck me into a story and never let go - we all have our personal favorites which do that magic trick - Anders falls into that category for me.

All the Birds in the Sky is a novel about a journey from childhood to adulthood, with Patricia meeting Laurence in high school. Patricia has an ability with magic (which comes about after she talks to birds) while Laurence has an affinity for technology (inventing a two second time machine wrist watch very early on). I found the high school years chapters to be the most moving. Patricia and Charlie are treated as outcasts at school, they are bullied, and their parents, instead of helping, keep punishing them. The descriptions of these incidents are heart-breaking. I was bullied a bit at school, but thank god I didn't grow up in the age of smartphones where things could be captured and passed around.

I found myself very interested in Patricia's arc throughout this story, even though personality wise I may be more like Laurence. Patricia eventually finds her way to the Etisley Maze, a school for witches. Anders has cooked up a nice broth of magic here, with the Maze combining two schools, the Healers and the Tricksters (I really like how they make deals). I don't want to spoil anything more, but every description of this place is cool, but not overdone. It's not even referred to in a linear fashion. After the high school years we find both Patricia and Laurence living in San Francisco in a slightly future time where environmental damage is reaching a crisis point.  Patricia is a practicing witch of great skill, but perhaps too great an ego, while Laurence is working for a very Google-like corporation that is hell-bent on saving the Earth with the most outrageous moonshots (anti-gravity, wormholes). Eventually they meet again as adults, and their worlds collide as magic meets high tech - and eventually comes into conflict.

I love any story set in California that manages to capture the wonderful craziness of life here. The setting of San Francisco comes alive here because, well, Anders lives in the city. Various descriptions of the Mission, Humphrey Slocombe, super expensive coffee, the Haight, Noe Valley, vegan donuts, various bars & cafes, even knowing the difference between Outer Sunset and Outer Outer Sunset (where my in-laws live), all these little details make the story come alive for me. I loved Cory Doctorow's Little Brother for much the same reason. There is also a subtext going on here, about the current clash in San Francisco between the techies (part of the economic boom driving up rents / prices to astronomical levels) and the artists / makers / regular folks (getting squeezed of the city). One thing that drives many people nuts are the influx of techies who don't have an appreciation of the city's culture - having arrived here in the late 70s I can tell you indeed the culture has changed. This book captures that attitude, not only from Laurence but from his co-workers who believe technology is the answer to every problem. Anders tries to give each side equal weight in this conflict.  The witches are ready to strike at the techies when they get out of control.  The techies, once they realize the this other faction exists, makes a plan to deal with them.

I love Anders humor, strewn throughout the book, lines such as "Laurence thought the two women in smart pumps and nylons were life coaches who were coaching each other, creating an endless feedback loop." And also throwaway lines like "Conventional Newtonian gravitation is so last year." Lots of geek references, too: Doctor Who fans will rejoice and so will fans of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

I found myself comparing Patricia's story arc to another geek milestone from 1980: Dark Phoenix from the X-Men. Patricia may be the most powerful witch on Earth, displaying power levels that threaten to spiral out of control. Like Jean Grey in the X-Men, Patricia needs an anchor which she finds in Laurence.

If there's anything negative about the book at all, it would be that the ending felt a little rushed. Anders lays out a lot of story elements in the beginning that come together at the end, perhaps a little too neatly. I could see how it was going to fit together, perhaps because I read too many stories, but at least everything was very consistent. I read this novel very quickly, almost unable to put it down and find out what would happen next--that is a sign of a really good novel. I hope Anders won't make us wait too long until her second novel comes out! Nuff Said.

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