Witchcraft, Science and the End of the World

Somewhere between 25372801Lauren Groff’s poignant Fates and Furies and Jo Walton’s offbeat Among Others, lies Charlie Jane Anders’ new book All the Birds in the Sky. Patricia and Laurence meet as children, both driven to the outskirts of junior high society they form a bond based on their mutual difficulty fitting in. The cruelty of their peers throws them together, and a battle between magic and science nearly tears them (and the world) apart.

I have a hard time classifying this book into any one genre. For much of the book Patricia and Laurence are children, but then they grow up, so it’s not “adult” or “young adult.” There’s magic, but it’s not really fantasy. There’s lots of science, but it’s not sci-fi. There’s a tough apocalyptic future, but it’s not exactly dystopian. It’s a kind of magical realism, but it’s not anything like most of the magical realism you’ve read. NPR points out that the novel is “science fantasy,” but that even that isn’t exactly right. I loved this book because even in its messier moments, it takes elements from all my favorite genres, shakes them up and dumps them out into this really powerful story about love and understanding.

On the surface, it’s somewhat predictable and easy to understand the idea that “science” and “magic” might find themselves in a battle at the end of the world. Why wouldn’t they? So often it seems that science ignores the more magical sides of nature and that magic defies science. However, I think Anders’ choice to bring the two together in Laurence and Patricia is cleverer than I expected and a great deal more moving.

I admit that while I was reading I wondered a little where Anders was going. At times, All the Birds in the Sky can feel a little scattered, but what stands out to me is the depth of character in both Patricia and Laurence. Many of the supporting cast feels flat, but in a way that serves the text well. It puts Patricia and Laurence in sharp relief against a backdrop of a story that is so crazy that it threatens to run amok throughout the novel. Patricia and Laurence are so well developed and well played that it all just works.

But this isn’t just a love story, or a story of the apocalypse, event though it would be easy to narrow it down to one of the two. Deeply entrenched in the book are themes about ethics and personal power that compel as much as the character-driven aspects of the story. By setting the story in the very near future, Anders asks us to think ahead about our relationships with technology, the planet and certain amount of personal responsibility.

Also, there’s robots and a school for witchcraft. All in one book! Listen, I think if you like the way Groff weaves the story of two people’s impact on one another in Fates and Furies, and Walton’s ability to make the fantastic utterly real (and practically mundane) then you’ll like this book. I think if you enjoyed the way that Emily St. John Mandel approached dystopia in Station Eleven, you’ll like this book. But really, it’s not like any of these books. If you’re looking for something a bit different than your usual sci-fi/fantasy fare, this is a lovely break from the norm.

Allison Carr Waechter is tired of winter and is ready to read outside in her hammock. 

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