“You never learned the secret,” said Roberta. “How to be a crazy motherfucker and get away with it. Everybody else does it. What, you didn’t think they were all sane, did you? Not a one of them. They’re all crazier than you and me put together. They just know how to fake it. You could too, but you’ve chosen to torture all of us instead. That’s the definition of evil right there: not faking it like everybody else. Because all of us crazy fuckers can’t stand it when someone else lets their crazy show. It’s like bugs under the skin. We have to destroy you. It’s nothing personal.”
The frustrating experience of reading All the Birds in the Sky begins with a young girl’s parents shouting at her and locking her in her room. After the third time main characters Patricia and Laurence are ostracized by their peers and parents, I realized that I was reading a YA novel, and why the genre is so often derided. Stark circumstances like these, which posit a you-against-the-world scenario so that teenagers who already feel this way about life can feel understood and validated by their fiction, doesn’t ring true anymore once you get to your late twenties. I’ve loved such books in the past, but there was usually something else going on with them, like the actual supportive adults in the Harry Potter books and the entertaining writing style of A Series of Unfortunate Events. What this book has to offer is the novelty of the two characters going into opposing fields (she’s a witch, he’s a mad scientist) and a bumbling assassin who is somehow the first act’s main source of comic relief and one of its biggest threats.
Just as I had resigned myself to that sort of reading experience, though, the book skips ahead to Patricia and Laurence’s adulthood and drops the YA angle completely. Once the book shifts into millennial hangout and romantic comedy mode, the characters can look back at their past, which no longer seems scary now that they’ve gotten past it. There are even token efforts to humanize Patricia’s psychotic family! Meanwhile, Patricia’s gone through a magic school that reminds me a lot of Brakebills from The Magicians and Laurence joined a near-future tech startup, all while global ecological catastrophe builds to the final act’s shift into a full-on disaster movie. In other words, if you get annoyed with the feel of All the Birds, just keep reading and it’ll soon turn into a very different book.
As a whole, this book is all over the place. I appreciate the occasional funny observation on modern hipster culture, like these:
“The secret to a successful webcomic is to trick people into believing they will only get all the jokes if they read regularly. By the time they realize there are no jokes for them to get, they’ve invested too much time to quit, and they can’t admit they’ve been duped,” said Kevin. “There is a whole art to creating nonexistent jokes that appear to go over everyone’s head. It’s much harder than creating actual jokes.”
Just when Diantha thought the whole ordeal couldn’t get more miserable, she heard an inhuman chatter from the corridor outside, and the group burst in. A dozen of them, in their little suits and starchy dresses, singing madrigals. Fucking madrigals. Was there a more repulsive trend, in the entire universe? Trust hipsters to make even the collapse of civilization unbearably twee. These were the advertising jingles of the Renaissance, written by wife killers and creepy stalkers.
There’s also a scenario from Patricia’s past at not-Brakebills that’s interesting enough that I wish I saw it in a more coherent story. Overall, though, the setting and aesthetic is a patchwork clunker held together with scrap and duct tape, limping across the finish line to an ending almost as abrupt as Snow Crash’s.
Despite the clutter of the rest of the book, there is one aspect of the narrative that All the Birds does very well. The relationship between Laurence and Patricia always feels natural and nuanced; though they work well as emotional supports for each other, they’re also different enough that they come into conflict with each other often. In other stories, there are circumstances where conflict between characters, based on misunderstandings and slights, could be nipped in the bud if those characters would just talk out their problems, which Patricia and Laurence always do. Unfortunately, their compatriots in the science vs. magic conflict don’t follow this same advice. Both groups want to save the world from ecological collapse, but they are so convinced that their side has all the answers and so convinced that their opponents are part of the problem that it’s hard for me to retain any respect for them.
Even though this book was almost a miss for me, and I doubt I’ll revisit it again, I can see this hitting somebody else’s sweet spot. There is enough spectacle, tonal whiplash and scattershot ideas that I can see someone else, old enough to not get grossed out at explicit sex but young enough to have more patience for YA emotional stakes, falling in love with this book for all the chances it takes. I won’t take that away from anyone, but there’s another book on the Hugo ballot that takes All the Birds in the Sky’s best strength and makes substantial improvements on every other aspect it fumbles on, so I can only give this book the most tentative of recommendations. It already won the Nebula, though, so I won’t be surprised if it also takes the Hugo, just disappointed.