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All the Birds in the Sky cover

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn't expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one's peers and families.

But now they're both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who's working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world's magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world's ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together--to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.

Friends! What do you do when you deeply want to like a book and you just can't? Well, I suppose you take out all your feels in a review. Fair warning, this review discusses abuse, and, after a while and a marked cut, spoilers.

All the Birds in the Sky is a book about tropes, which is not surprising coming from the former editor in chief of io9. As the Tor.com review puts it, "it’s also a book about 'these sorts of stories' and genre fiction, though less directly." It's a blend of sci fi and fantasy tropes, and of tropes about the two coming together. Sci fi + fantasy is my stop — it's what I write myself, and I was very excited to see a mainstream book that mixed the genres. However, I ended up not really liking the execution. Patricia, a cis woman, represents magic/nature and is a witch. Laurence, a cis man, represents technology and science and is an engineering genius. Wired says that Charlie Jane Anders "worried a lot about playing into expectations", and in many ways I feel she was right to worry. The setup is not just classic, it's classical, drawing on the oldest associations of the masculine and the feminine in our culture. But as I said, this is a book about tropes — and about playing with them. The whole thing has a punchline that subverts many of the tropes that had been in play up to that point, but I'll discuss that after the spoiler cut. First, I want to talk about some things about the book that I liked!


First, I loved the seamless blending of magic and sci fi into one universe, and if the book's only goal had been to sell the universe to me, I would have counted it as a rousing success. I love how casually sci fi elements are incorporated into the world. The magic is a slightly bigger stretch, but fits in with almost the same ease, as the opening chapter attests. I love how diversely populated the world is. A female/female relationship is given a nod (but more on this later), there's a gender-nonconforming person, there's people who aren't white doing various nerdy or magical things, and basically this is the way to populate a world properly. Overall the worldbuilding is good and hints at a lot going under the surface, a lot that's deeper than humanity's current understanding of their circumstances and it's fascinating to see how the different individuals and factions relate to this fact about the world. The magic system is one I haven't seen before, with tricksters and healers. It might be a play on the chaotic vs. lawful magic trope (trooooooopes, tropes everywhere), but it's a unique take with a lot going for it and hints that there's more to it than that simple division. I love the way the world is doomed in the background, with climate change and everything else slowly carving slices out of humanity's ability to live and it's all mostly implied. I love apocalypse by implication.

With slightly less enthusiasm I can also recommend the writing, which was by and large smooth with a surprisingly effective image or two scattered here and them like gems. I want to pull out a piece that worked for me and shows many of the themes of the book:
But maybe Laurence had been right and these devices were what made us unique, as humans. We made machines, the way spiders made silk. Staring at the red wasp-shaped chassis, she thought of how disgusted she had been with Laurence, not long ago. And maybe she shouldn't judge him — judging was a kind of Aggrandizement — and maybe this device was a culmination of everything she'd always admired about him from the start. And, yes, a sign that they'd both won out, over the Mr. Roses of the world.

"It's beautiful," she said.
p.151-152

In some places, it really works.

It's just that things get a bit tonally weird at various points, and this is where we transition to some talk about abuse and personal reactions.

I had a lot of very personal reactions to this book, which makes me wish I loved it more, because I think evoking an emotional response is one of the most important and central aspects of art. But it's hard when a lot of those reactions were about the abuse present in the first part of the book. Covering Patricia and Laurence's childhood and early adolescence, this part of the book reads like classic YA(1) (tropes, yes?), and is rife with peer, parental, and authority figure abuse.

I was abused growing up. This doesn't mean I can't consume media with abuse in it, but I can't help always (a) viewing the abuse through the critical eye of a survivor and (b) feeling oppressed if the abuse goes on and on and on. To my eye, the abuse in All the Birds in the Sky is both a little exaggerated (a trope being played up) and so pervasive that it just... made me kind of sick. The characters themselves don't really comment on the abuse; it's just a fact of their lives, background noise, and when I talked to [personal profile] renay about the book she said it didn't bother her because it wasn't foregrounded. Well. It bothered me. And that's not a bad thing about the book, but it is a thing that deeply affected my reading experience. It made the first part feel like it dragged, like I was bogged down in it, and it all felt very depressing and hopeless. If that was part of Anders's goal, then, well, mission accomplished! But I think it went a bit over the line for me, from "a device used in a book to set the scene and evoke emotion" to actual un-enjoyment. I was talking to Jenny of Reading the End and she called the abuse Roald Dahl-like, which I entirely agree with — it's almost, but not quite, a joke. But then they grow up and they're okay and there's just so little fallout from the abuse that it's, as Jenny put it, tonally jarring. Of course, both characters were shaped by their abuse and it impacts how they form relationships, think of themselves, etc. but... not... enough? Not enough, I think. If the book had started with Book Three, without showing me any of the abuse, and all I had to go on was an adult witch and an adult scientist, I would have accepted them as whole characters without necessarily an abusive explanation for the way they are. It just doesn't seem like the abuse is dealt with in a very thoughtful way, and this is a major fault in the book for me. If you include abuse in your book, I expect it to be dealt with thoughtfully and with consequence. Mostly what I got from Patricia and Laurence's adult selves was a lot of "it's complicated", which is too vague to describe an origin with abuse that pervasive. In the end, the use of the abuse trope felt irresponsible to me.

Other personal reactions had a lot to do with expectations. This was a book by the former lead editor of io9, and was billed as a mix of fantasy and sci fi. I was really excited about this, and expected to be blown away. It was, sadly, probably a case where nothing could live up to my overly-excited expectations, so in a way there was no way for Charlie Jane Anders to win this one. That's on me! But there are other ways the book fell flat for me. I had trouble relating to either of the characters, especially Laurence, despite our shared abusive background. I think the abuse was meant to evoke sympathy for them (as one of its many narrative functions), and, reader, I tried. But there was something... stilted... in the way they related to the people around them. And I can't tell if this is a flaw in the writing or a show-don't-tell triumph of writing the after-effects of an abusive background, but all I can say is that it didn't work for me personally. Patricia's negative self-talk, especially with respect to "aggrandizement" especially was hard for me to stomach because so many women have trouble with negative self talk and did I need to read about another one? So much of how I read this depends on the ending of the book so! I will leave my spoiler-free review at this.

Now, on to the spoilers!

So this is a book about tropes. And as such, in the end, its success for me depends on how well it plays with those tropes. And, sadly, in this case, it felt like it was too little, too late.

So the book ultimately pairs Patricia and Laurence together, which is barely a spoiler but I'm putting it down here anyway. The thing is, Patricia did have same-sex feelings for another girl at her magic school(s), Diantha. She even kissed her once, though Diantha's ability to participate in that was questionable. But I have three problems with this relationship. (1) It's always the women who are bi/pan. Where are the bi/pan men in fiction? (2) This is a queer relationship and it ends badly. Oh so badly. The best I can say for it is that they both live. (3) This is the only queer relationship I remember appearing in the book. Both Patricia and Laurence have other relationships, all het, but the ultimate driving relationship of the book is between Patricia and Laurence, and that's het too(2). And I am just. Kind of done with het stories unless there's something really different about them. And in this book's defense, it's a tropefest of magical girl meets scientific boy, but in the end the thesis is about how neither the disciplines nor the genders are as different as they seem, and they are interdependent and can merge together into a seamless whole and for once it's the man who sacrifices and is silenced. So that's good! But 99.5% of this book is heteronormative, and that's just... a non-starter for me. As I said, there was no way for Charlie Jane Anders to win this one. That's just me.

There were a couple of other gender-related things that bothered me. Here is a quote from Patricia's narrative:
"I mean, we're grown-ups now. Allegedly. And we feel things less than we did when we were kids, because we've grown so much scar tissue, or our senses have dulled. I think it's probably healthy. I mean, little kids don't have to make decisions, unless something's very wrong. Maybe you can't make up your mind as easily, if you feel too much. You know?"
p.186

There is a classic (trope!) divide that equates the emotional with the feminine and the logical as the masculine. And this quote plays right into that dichotomy, privileging the mature, logical male over the immature, emotional female. But it's a woman who says this. Is it internalized misogyny? Charlie Jane Anders writing a character as deliberately fallible? I'd like to believe it's that. Laurence makes some pretty emotional decisions later in the book. I'm just not sure how thoroughly the book manages to shed this toxic dichotomy in the end, when this view is presented as both outcome and maturation relative to the protagonists' childhoods.

There's also the question of the AI Peregrine. Laurence is the one who builds it (masculine! trope!) but Patricia is the one who nurtures it (feminine! so trope!). It bothered me that their roles were pigeonholed to this degree in a gender-dependent way. Again, the ending subverts a lot of this but it feels like too little too late.

BUT ABOUT THAT ENDING. So in the end, Peregrine (who I guessed to be behind the Caddies as soon as it was told how smart they were) and the magical Tree merge together in the ultimate union of magic and technology. This is a satisfying conclusion to the.... thematic... elements of the plot, but not to the human ones. Patricia and Laurence are the human avatars of their respective disciplines, representing (in the end) the creative, rather than destructive, forces behind each, but as I said earlier, I never felt very connected to them. For the vast majority of the book they live lives of toeing the party line. It is only together, and when they start sacrificing for each other, that they start stepping outside their prescribed roles, both of discipline and of gender. Also, the AI Peregrine is part magical in nature, which I find very satisfying, but I didn't see a balancing/reciprocal influence of the scientific upon the magical. There is the (spoilers spoilers) apparently artificial divide of magic into healing and trickery, but that didn't seem... scientific enough. Is imposing a structure on magic at all an artifact of humanity's bent towards the scientific?

In the book's defense, these are interesting questions that the book enticed me to ponder. And in that sense, it succeeds! I thought a lot about the relationship between magic and technology in my own writing after reading this, and I think I learned things. So good job to Charlie Jane Anders there!

In the end though, it feels like Anders was trying to play with tropes, and yet ended up reproducing these very gendered roles for her characters. To what degree is it possible to critique a trope while simultaneously using it? It's a fine line to walk, and I think Anders missed the mark on this one.

Ultimately, the tonal shifts and emotional disconnectedness in the book, and the way all the trope subversions came at the tippy-top very-very end did not work for me. And the heteronormativity. I can't fault the author too much for that: she was already writing something that busted genres, and adding a queer element to that is super risky. BUT I CAN DREAM.

I can always dream of genre-busting fiction that stars people of colour and queer people. I can always dream.

And the thing is, Charlie Jane Anders did a lot of work here. She broke down barriers between sci fi and fantasy, creating a world that seamlessly blends magic with an inclusion of sci fi so casual you can barely think of it as fiction. She created a book that ultimately says that the barriers between genres is artificial and can be overcome to create a harmonious whole. She created a book that made me think critically about my own original fiction. In a lot of ways, Charlie Jane Anders did succeed.

It's just that elements of the book — major elements — are not for me. I love works that play with tropes, but this one played too straight for too long, and kind of lost me in the process. It was a risk, and I don't doubt it was a calculated one, but by looking at reviews of the book she gambled and won the mainstream while losing the fringe like me. And you know what? Winning the mainstream with a work that blends genres and populates its world diversely? That's no small win.


Notes

  1. This is not to say I think the book overall reads like YA, because (a) it doesn't and (b) "this should be in the YA section" is often lobbed at women and is a form of gatekeeping, preventing women's stories from joining mainstream SFF adult literature and harking back to how women are seen as more juvenile and called by juvenile names. No thank you. (back to text)

  2. Not that there is anything wrong with heterosexuality and living the stereotype. I had a long talk with [personal profile] renay about this, and it's not that people who live like this have anything wrong with them or that Charlie Jane Anders is obligated to challenged gender norms at every turn on top of all the other risky work she's doing. There is something wrong with heteronormativity and gender norms, but nothing wrong with living agency-filled lives that embody the tropes. This post by bikiniarmorbattledamage outlines the difference between agency and sexism. The thing is, these are all fictional characters created by Charlie Jane Anders, and all the choices they make are ones she wrote for them. (back to text)




Supplementary Material
Renay on All the Birds in the Sky in her Lets Get Literate Column
Renay on All the Birds in the Sky in our Favorite Media of January 2016 roundup


Other Reviews
The Book Smugglers; see especially Ana's discussion of how this book busts down male privilege
Tor.com
SF Reviews
Locus
Journal Sentinel
The Amazon Book Review, with Interview with Charlie Jane Anders
SF Bluestocking
Civilian Reader
Wired
SF Signal
Page to Stage

Date: 2016-05-04 10:46 pm (UTC)
dhampyresa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dhampyresa
Thank you for this review. I'd heard of this book before, in a vague "hey maybe I should check that out at some point" way, but reading the review I have concluded it would be a bad idea for me to read this book. (It's not Anders, it's me, etc.)

I can always dream of genre-busting fiction that stars people of colour and queer people. I can always dream.
+9000
Edited Date: 2016-05-04 10:46 pm (UTC)

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