Hugo reading 2017: All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders is a strange book.  I’ve finished it, and I’m still not entirely sure what happened, but I think the author was deliberately trying to leave things wide open.

Anyway, I quite liked it, which was a nice change.

It tells the story of Patricia, a witch who can communicate with animals, and Lawrence, who is a brilliant scientist.  They meet as children and become friends, but I have to say, that whole first section of the book – about a third of the novel, I think – which takes place while they are children is absolutely harrowing.  They are both bullied, horrifically, and the adults in their lives keep on blaming them for the things that are happening to them.  Also, there is a random assassin who has decided that it is his mission to kill Patricia, so he signs on as the school counsellor.  This doesn’t help.

I was bullied pretty badly at school (though this was a whole new, horrific level), and I found this part extremely hard to read.  Also, beware – there is the now-traditional animal cruelty, though it’s mostly implied.  But I have a bad feeling about what happened to Patricia’s cat after she had to leave.  I do wonder why so many Hugo-nominated books are being sadistic about animals this year.  It’s like they think it’s the Newberry awards…

Anyway, once everyone grows up, it’s easier to read, if you set aside the fact that the world is clearly about to end – the climate is breaking down, and there are food shortages and all sorts of other things going on in the background.  But in the foreground, you have Lawrence, who is part of a team trying to get things sorted so that the human race can move to another planet when this one dies, and Patricia, who is wandering around doing witchy things at the commands of her witchy supervisors who, to be frank, seem to be rather awful and manipulative people.  She is also trying to use magic to repair the world they actually have.

It’s hard to describe this book usefully.  A big part of it is the central relationship between Patricia and Lawrence, who at different times are friends, strangers, lovers, enemies, and allies.  There is some fascinating stuff going on with artificial intelligence.  There are a lot of people who mean very well and do terrible things while meaning very well.  And the world is coming to pieces. Really, horribly, coming to pieces.  This should be a horrifically dark book, but it somehow manages not to be.

The writing style is transparent and coherent and lovely and so refreshing after Palmer and Tingle.  I like the way the book straddles the border of fantasy and science fiction, and even having finished it, I’m not sure entirely what side it comes down on.  I think fantasy – there is a lot of fairy tale structure – but it’s fantasy with a lot of technology and science in it.

… you know, it’s much harder to write about a book that I just quietly enjoyed.  But that’s how I feel about this one.  I liked it.  I’d maybe even read it again.  It didn’t change my world, but it also didn’t ruin my weekend.  It’s a solidly good book which deserved nomination, but I do sort of hope there will be something I like more in the mix.