You know how Bohemian Rhapsody is basically about 8 songs somehow spliced into 1, which shouldn’t make any sense but is actually a profound work of musical genius? That’s how I felt about All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Titan Books, January 2016). Just when you think you know what’s going on in this book, you drop your cup of tea in alarm because it has become something else entirely. WARNING: do not try to drink tea while reading this book.
So, this paragraph is where I usually write a neat little synopsis of a book’s plot. Which is very tricky for All the Birds in the Sky because the plot is essentially that everything you could possibly imagine and a lot of stuff a mere mortal would never think of happens. In case you don’t find that a very useful description, here is a slightly more helpful version; the two main characters, Patricia and Laurence, meet as awkward children and, as awkward adults, continue to randomly bump into each other. Patricia can speak to birds. Laurence has built a two-second time machine. There is magic and mystery and mad science. And then your head explodes.
The mix of genres here is basically insane. To begin with, it’s a sweet childhood tale, almost like a fable, concerning the friendship between two social outcasts. Then it starts to straddle science fiction and magical realism, along with a bit of dystopia. And in addition to all that, it’s also an epic romance. The only thing it’s missing is random moments of people bursting into song; now that I have written that, I am planning All the Birds in the Sky: THE MUSICAL. It is going to be amazing. I am casting myself as Roberta, Patricia’s meanie sister. Somehow, all these conflicting elements of the story combine to create something entirely original and incomparable to anything else I’ve ever read.
Anders’ characters are creative masterpieces. The weird eccentricity of Patricia and exasperated innocence of Laurence, along with all their other personality quirks, give the novel true heart; both characters are so nuanced and multifaceted, with every aspect of their personalities completely believable. Additionally, there are brilliant supporting characters, like Peregrine and Theodolphus. I loved everyone.
The most appealing thing in a long, long list of appealing things about All the Birds in the Sky is the writing style, which is kind of furiously inventive and ridiculously funny. There were so many sentences in this book which I had to highlight just because I had never read anything like them. An example: “Theodolphus had not eaten ice cream since the poisoning at the mall, and he didn’t deserve any now. Ice cream was for assassins who finished their targets.” Another example: “Serafina was late for dinner because her emotional robots had been having a nervous breakdown.” And my favourite: “it took a lot of concentration to translate from gopher language to bureaucratese.” How very true. Out of context, these are just really weird sentences. In context, they are really weird sentences which add to a kind of glorious oddness which underpins the whole novel.
I loved All the Birds in the Sky. I’ve been on a run of books which I didn’t really care about that much, and this whizzed into my brain like some kind of sherbet missile, spraying zinginess all over my synapses. Anders has produced something which is mad, original and immensely enjoyable. I’ll be reading it again.