Love Story Meets the Apocalypse (In a Refreshingly Unexpected Way) – A Review of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

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Warning: contains spoilers for the ending of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

Quite a few people have asked me why I do not seem to review Young Adult (YA) fiction. After all, have I not said I enjoy it? If I enjoy it, I should probably consider reviewing more of it – especially since there are so many to choose from now.

As it happens, I do have a fondness for YA, but of a specific sort: books like Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books, and naturally, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Some books I picked up when I was in high school, while others came into my life when I was in university, or even later. For instance, the Young Wizards series is one of the favourite childhood reads of a close friend of mine, and out of fondness for this friend (and a very high regard for her literary tastes) I chose to pick it up, despite the fact that I was in my late twenties at the time, and so would be considered well beyond the series’ target audience. I have not regretted the decision, and am, in fact, still reading the series: Duane is still writing for it, with the tenth and latest book in the series, Games Wizards Play, released at the start of this month.

Because of this history of good experiences, I assumed that, in the wake of Harry Potter’s popularity, there would be more and better YA reads out there. And there have been some: Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy echoes Duane’s stories of a boy and a girl confronting adversity together, but encased in a delightful steampunk shell. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy shows that YA is capable of handling the darker themes and visuals of dystopic fiction. Libba Bray’s Diviners series is proof-positive that YA can take the grand scope and detail of a historical novel while still remaining as readable and entertaining as ever.

But aside from these books and a few others, my experience with contemporary YA has been mediocre at best, or outright objectionable at worst. I suppose it’s just my age showing: I am older now, and have greater experience of the world than I used to, and therefore am more likely to be impatient with stories that are, in the end, intended for those younger than myself. Perhaps I am past the age when YA fiction has the same magic as it did  when I was in my teens and early twenties.

And yet I know this is not true. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed Duane’s Young Wizards when I picked it up in my late twenties, and I still continue to enjoy the series today – mostly because though the stories seem “simple”, they are, in fact, multilayered and complex. The same applies to Harry Potter, and the Abhorsen books, and the Diviners books, and all the other YA books that I have enjoyed despite being much older than their intended audience, or (in the case of series that I picked up when I was younger) enjoying them well into my adulthood.

I suppose much of my disappointment with contemporary YA has to do with that notion of complexity versus simplicity. To my perhaps-cynical mind, so much of YA has become a morass of trite, self-indulgent, easy-to-consume love stories built on a small handful of recycled tropes and images: selected by publishers not because they are actually great stories, but because they fit into an easily-marketable trend. I generally have a high opinion of teenaged readers, but I worry that big-name publishers, slavishly devoted to the latest idée du jour (or whatever is most likely to become the next box office hit), are feeding them nothing but schlock and tripe. That’s certainly how I feel when I scan the YA shelves of my favourite bookstores.

That is why Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel All the Birds in the Sky is such a refreshing change of pace, and why I think more people should read it. Though I was initially worried that it would resemble the sorts of YA novels I do not particularly enjoy, I am pleased that my initial expectations were very much not fulfilled.

The novel begins with two children, Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armistead, discovering that there is something extraordinary about them. In Patricia’s case, she finds out she’s a witch who can speak to animals, whereas Laurence discovers that he’s actually so smart he can build a two-second time machine based solely on schematics taken from the Internet. They strike up a friendship during junior high, but are split apart due to a set of rather extraordinary circumstances. They are reunited years later, in San Francisco, just as the world is on the verge of breaking down in an environmental apocalypse. Both Patricia and Laurence – the former a trained witch, the latter an engineering genius – think they can stop the coming collapse. But what neither of them knows is that they are the lynchpin upon which the fate of the whole world rests: whether it survives and continues on, or ends in disaster.

The first thing I must say about this novel is that it can be a hard book to read – not because any of its concepts are difficult or dense, but because of the emotional blows it delivers to the reader. Take, for instance, the first third of the novel, which deals with the familial and peer abuse that both Patricia and Laurence experience while growing up – a common trope in YA. Here is one of the (milder) incidents that Patricia undergoes, and which some children and young adults might find familiar, from their own experience:

A bullfrog jumped out of Patricia’s locker. A big one, too large to cup in your hands. It croaked, probably something like “get me out of here.” Its eyes looked strangulated with panic, and its legs—awfully little, to support such a bulbous frame—twitched. It wanted to find its cool wet nest and get away from this white hell. Patricia tried to catch it, but it slipped through her grasp. Someone must have spent hours catching this thing, gotten up at dawn or something. The frog gave a vengeful grunt and took off down the hallway, heading god knew where, as all the kids shrieked with laughter. “Emo bitch,” someone called out.

Some might find the use of the word “bitch” objectionable and unrealistic when applied to young adults, but the truth is that it is the sort of language that young adults use on each other, and the above is one of any number of scenarios a bullied teenager might experience. While I myself have never experienced such levels of bullying, I do find Patricia’s situation familiar – uncomfortably so, to a certain extent. It got to the point that I was so incredibly angry with what was happening to the two protagonists that I had to set aside the book for a while and read something else. That level of anger doesn’t happen very often, but it is a testament to the sorts of things that happen to the two protagonists that I actually had to put the book aside a while to calm down.

As the first third of the novel goes on, however, with incident after incident occurring to both Laurence and Patricia, it all becomes a bit wearisome and tedious. I found myself wishing that the story would just move on already, instead of escalating the abuse to near-absurd levels. It is not as if the reader does not get the point, after a few incidents, that Patricia and Laurence are abused, that they do have a hard life, and that they have found ways of coping with the near-constant stream of physical and psychological injury they receive from those around them. Fortunately, once both protagonists find a way out of their respective situations, the abuse ends – but not without repercussions, which become clear later on in the novel.

The latter two-thirds of the novel deal with themes and concepts that I wish more contemporary YA would address (or rather, address well). Take, for example, the anxiety of creating close, intimate relationships with people for fear of losing them later on. Laurence illustrates that anxiety fairly well:

By now, they’d been dating five months. And lately, every time Serafina looked at her phone while they were hanging out, or stared into space, or bit her thick lower lip in the middle of a conversation, Laurence braced himself. This was it. She was going to dump him. Then the moment would pass. Laurence was sure she was just waiting for the right moment, or the ideal pretext. Every time he woke up next to her, he wondered if this was the last time her breath would warm the back of his neck and her breasts would graze either side of his spine.

He was not going to lose her. He had aced bigger challenges than this. He was going to think of something, take extreme measures, even deploy the Nuclear Option early if he had to. He was going to find a way to hold on to this amazing girl.

I have long had a problem with romance in contemporary YA. So much of it tends to read as extremely saccharine and marshmallow-y, and therefore does not really present anything deeper or more complex than the wild abandon of falling in love. Even The Fault in Our Stars, so often lauded for how it brings “complex romantic themes” to YA fiction, does not really move very far beyond the “falling in love” part (mostly because Augustus oh-so-conveniently dies once he and Hazel have affirmed their relationship). While there is nothing inherently wrong with romantic stories, I find that I don’t enjoy how it tends to be portrayed in contemporary YA: robbed of depth and nuance, reduced to nothing more than a handful of Instagram- and Pinterest-worthy images (with matching fairy lights).

This is why I am glad that All the Birds in the Sky does not do something similar, and why it makes such a refreshing change. Love is not just about falling in love: it’s about falling out of love, too, and the fear of falling out of love. It is messy, and sudden, and oftentimes so painfully sloppy no one in their right mind would want to put it up for public consumption on the Internet. Anders gets that sloppy quality almost perfectly right, and not just in terms of Laurence’s romantic relationship. One can be in love with an ideal, after all, or a goal, and Anders portrays how both Patricia and Laurence do just that: fall in love with their respective causes, then fall out of it, and then fall in love with it again in a whole different way – no Instagram or Pinterest necessary (and no fairy lights, either).

As for the plot, it is, again, not that different from any apocalypse scenario one might encounter in contemporary YA: the end of the world is nigh, and it is up to a bunch of brilliant young minds to make sure it doesn’t actually end. What makes this particular apocalypse different, however, is not just that one solution is magical and the other technological, but that it is clear why it is happening in the first place. Environmental collapse as a result of climate change is old news to most of us who keep up with such things, but in many post-apocalyptic YA novels the cause of the apocalypse is generally vague. I like that Anders chooses to make clear the cause of the apocalypse in her novel, because people need to be reminded, as frequently as possible, that if the end of the world ever comes, it will be because of human-caused climate change.

But what really holds this book together is the writing. Anders is quite deft with her prose, though her pacing is not altogether what I would wish it to be: the first two-thirds of the novel move quite slowly, and then pick up extremely quickly towards the end. This has the rather unfortunate result of making the novel’s central romance feel a bit too sudden to make sense – or at least, that is how I felt about it. I’m sure other readers have no complaints about the pacing with respect to the romance.

Aside from that, however, the novel is eminently readable and there are plenty of very quotable phrases and passages. My favourite is quoted below (mostly because it speaks to me about how I like to live my life and why books are so important to me):

“Boredom is the mind’s scar tissue.”

Overall, All the Birds in the Sky is remarkable, not because of it brings together two different genres (as other reviewers have remarked), but because it shows how similar those genres are. It is also remarkable in that it might be considered a YA novel, but does things so much better than the current crop of YA novels out there (with a few exceptions). The first third might be a bit hard to read – partly because of its subject matter, and partly because of how it might drag on a bit too long for some readers – but the rest of the book is an absolute (heart-wrenching) pleasure. If this novel might be considered YA, then it is YA done right: the kind of YA that speaks to those who are no longer quite as young as they used to be, and will continue to speak to those who are once they are all “grown up”.

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