I read All the Birds in the Sky about a week ago and I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it. At times I felt like it was one of the most beautiful and honest things I had ever read. At other moments I’d be chuckling over a funny bit. But then later I’d be rolling my eyes at some ridiculous melodrama. So how do I even all of that out?
The description paints this book as a war between magical and technological factions, but it takes a long time to get there. Before our two protagonists can potentially fall in love and be torn apart by war, they have to grow up.
We meet Patricia and Laurence as children. Neither has a rosy childhood. Patricia is wild and weird, and has abusive parents and a cruel older sister. Laurence’s parents mean well, but they don’t understand him and try to force him into a mold that doesn’t fit. Both suffer from bullying and being outsiders at the school where they meet.
They have an on-again, off-again friendship before finally being separated when Patricia gets called up to attend not-Hogwarts, but not before stopping to save Laurence from military school.
When they meet again, Patricia is a powerful witch and Laurence is working at a start-up determined to save the people on the world, but not necessarily the world itself. They come together and get pulled apart several times, all while the world falls apart around them.
I feel like All the Birds in the Sky shares something in common with Every Heart a Doorway (which I love) and The Magicians (which I hate with a frothing passion). Each takes a look at the escapist fantasies we gorged ourselves on as youth, but through a distorted lens. They all seem to ask — what if you were the Chosen One, but it kind of sucked?
It’s no surprise that this has become a literary sub-genre. For the “Oregon Trail Generation”, nothing has quite turned out how we thought it would. We’ve got student debt, job instability, and can’t afford to buy houses or have children. If adulthood turned out to be a disaster, it stands to reason that our fantasy life would have been a huge disappointment, too.
And so Patricia gets to become a witch, as she knew she was destined to, but she’s beholden to elder magicians who use her as a sort of curse-wielding assassin in the name of “balance.” When she tries to help people, she’s warned about the sin of Aggrandizement. Eventually we learn what she did to earn such scrutiny, and while it’s true that her actions had bad consequences, she wasn’t solely responsible. It felt to me like she had left behind the abusive relationship with her parents to have an abusive relationship with magicians.
As for Laurence, he achieves his desire to be recognized for his scientific brilliance. Unfortunately, this leads to a demanding boss who expects long hours and even threatens to sequester him in a far-off facility, away from friends and family.
Oh wow, and I haven’t even gotten into the assassin that wants to kill them both because he thinks they’re going to be responsible for destroying the world.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and that’s what kept me reading even when I was rolling my eyes or questioning the authors choices.
Now, though, I have to get something off of my chest. When Patricia is a girl, she gets a kitten who wants nothing to do with her. Her sister torments the kitten. We’re not given any details but every night she does something to make the cat howl and cry. Patricia eventually befriends the cat and convinces him to sleep in her room. Protecting him every night helps her get through the bullying and abuse she’s otherwise suffering.
Then the wizards come along and are like “Hey it’s time to go to not-Hogwarts” and she just leaves her cat behind. That’s it. She just leaves her cat in the home where no one else loves him, where her sister actively torments him. What happens to the cat? We don’t know. At one point Patricia thinks about how she had left him there. Just that she’d left him. Not “I wish the school had allowed me to bring him” not “I always felt guilty about leaving him behind.”
So anyway, no matter what else Patricia did, I could never like her after that. I’m mad all over again just thinking about it.
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