I don’t have much experience with magical realism, but I’ve loved the stories I have read from that genre. Charlie Jane Anders’ 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky had been on my radar for a while, but I finally picked it up to start off the new year with something a little out of the norm. This book certainly hits that mark.
About the Book: Science expert Laurence and magical animal-speaker Patricia meet as children and form an unlikely friendship based largely on their shared experiences as outcasts in middle school. Laurence is the nerd with the two-second time machine, and Patricia is the freak who believes a bird led her to a riddling tree. They stick together because it’s better to have someone than no one, but they both know that if there’s a way out of the mess they’re in, they’d leave each other in a heartbeat if a better chance for friendship and popularity came along. Then they encounter an assassin, a torturous military school, a grudge-bearing cat, and a magician who can never wear the same face twice. In other words, life moves on, and the pair seems to grow apart. However, fate–or artificial intelligence–has other plans for them that lead to battle between science and magic that puts the whole world at stake. Or at least, this is what the assassin saw when he looked into the future and decided he must kill Laurence and Patricia for the good of the planet.
“And then he’d stared into the ornately carved Seeing Hole in the floor of the Shrine, and he’d seen a vision of things to come that still replayed in his nightmares. Death and chaos, engines of destruction, whole cities crumbling, and a plague of madness. And at the last, a war between magic and science that would leave the world in ashes. At the center of all this were a man and a woman, who were still children now.”
This story seems a little slow at points, and I think that’s because it appears to be one of those stories where there are a million small, separate events rather than a million interconnected pieces leading to the same climax. Of course, the events of All the Birds in the Sky are connected and they do converge in a major climax, as happens in most books, but there’s not some major problem on the horizon that keeps the tension connected and growing. Of course, the reader learns early on that a disastrous war might be on the horizon, if the assassin is to be believed, but until 3/4 of the book has passed, none of the plot points seem to be leading in a related direction. This book is like a dot-to-dot puzzle where the points are numbered but not yet connected, so the reader must jump from event to event building his or her own bridges while completely unaware of what the final outcome might look like. It is undeniably chaotic, though it seems that’s exactly what the narration is aiming for.
This book would be impossible if the characters weren’t so enjoyable. But Laurence and Patricia are presented as highly unique, compelling characters, and their lives so unusual that I had to find out what happened to them. It wasn’t whether they were together or successful or even alive that mattered, but how they would end up wherever they were headed. Both main characters are intelligent people on vastly different paths in life, but their paths keep crossing and bringing conflicting forces dangerously close. Despite their differences, however, Laurence and Patricia keep realizing that each is the only person on earth who seems fully capable of understanding the other.
“You know…no matter what you do, people are going to expect you to be someone you’re not. But if you’re clever and lucky and work your butt off, then you get to be surrounded by people who expect you to be the person you wish you were.”
The best part of All the Birds in the Sky is that the reader never knows what to expect. In a world full of predictable plot lines, this book has something bizarre and unforeseeable in every chapter, if not on every page. Sometimes, the crazy scenarios will even make you laugh.
“All this time as a mad scientist, why didn’t he have a shrink ray or stun gun in his closet somewhere? He’d been wasting his life.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to love this book. The best part of magical realism, in my opinion, is that the magical parts of the story can’t be easily denied because so much of the story is set in realistic, irrefutable scenes, but so much of this book felt alien that it came off as much more magical than realism; the imbalance made this a more difficult read for me to keep interested in. There are some great elements to this story, and the characters are unlike any I’ve seen before, but the tension is weak due to the scattered plot and every section of the book is a whole new battle. It didn’t turn me off from magical realism, but I do wish this hadn’t been my first read of the year.
- Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is a much milder sort of magical realism. There is only one aspect of the novel, a reappearing tiger that the main character of the story senses inside her house, that comprises the otherworldly aspect of this book. The fact that everything else in the story seems entirely possible makes the tiger even more fantastic and intriguing.
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid is another great choice for magical realism fans, though I’d call this one something more like paranormal realism. It has those strange elements just outside of reality that must be imagined, but are presented in such a plausible way that it’s nearly impossible to see what’s really going on–in a good way.
Coming up next: I’ll be reviewing Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed next, a recent release that’s a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in a prison. Two of those elements sounded irresistibly appealing to me, and I’m hoping this book will warm me to the third. I’ve barely begun reading and I’m already hooked. Check back early next week for my complete review.
The Literary Elephant