Sunday, November 06, 2016
Book 75: Or if you don't like Star Wars references, you could think of it as being like if Frodo got to the Cracks Of Doom but Sauron had died of old age and the One Ring turned out to be just sort of a MacGuffin.
All The Birds In The Sky as a book feels a lot like its protagonists: always reaching for something more, and not sure if they've made it there yet. The book is good. Too good to feel as light as it does, which is why I wanted more. It's a good book that feels like it should have been a great book.
The plot is this: Patricia, as a young girl, learns that she may be a witch when a bird talks to her and takes her to the Tree, where all the birds meet and pose a question to her. Her potential witch status makes her something of an outcast, and causes her to bond with Laurence, whose own unhappiness and focus on science makes him an outsider, too. Never really friends but not quite enemies, Laurence and Patricia form a unique bond that carries them through most of high school before their paths diverge.
From there, it's a small [SPOILER ALERT] to tell you that their paths meet up again as the possible end of the world is looming: the two are on opposite sides, each of which faction has its own, possibly terrible, idea about how to solve all the problems in the world.
There's a lot to love about this book: Anders creates a system of magic that is deceptively awesome in its simplicity, and throws in the kind of true-seeming science that books like this rely on, both without getting caught up in all the arcana that, say, Lev Grossman's Magicians series does with magic or Larry Niven might for science. There are touches of humor, too, throughout the book, which give it the kind of light quality that allows the book to deal with serious (and sometimes dark) themes and scenes. All of this is good, and what makes it a good book.
The downfall, though, is the book feels underdeveloped, or perhaps rushed, or both. At times, I wondered if maybe it was intended as a YA book; it felt simple in a not-bad way, simple the way the Narnia books sometimes felt simple, but at other times it felt rushed, or as though something had been cut out. I wondered after I finished it if maybe the publisher hadn't made the book be cut back to fit a page length that it thought we be more economical or something. It has that feel to it. There's a lot of stuff in the book that feels exposition-y or voiced-over, like Laurence's romance with another girlfriend throughout the book; the entire relationship feels like an example of tell rather than show, the way you might if you really wanted the readers to know something, but had a time limit.
Then there is the story of Theodolphus Rose, a master assassin who enters the story with plans to kill Patricia and Laurence while they're still young, because he's foreseen them destroying the world; after a major buildup with Rose, his storyline just peters out in a way that feels almost entirely unconnected to the first part of the story. Had Rose been cut out of the story entirely I think the book would be no worse for it, which says a lot about a master assassin who takes a job as a guidance counselor.
There are also minor things that don't fit in, like two of the more powerful witches, one who does spells by telling stories, a magic that nobody else has, and one whose mere presence causes anything biological to grow crazily. These two characters are brought in and out as needed, and the fact that their magic is so different from everyone else's goes unexplained.
Near the end, I started to think that this was maybe book 1 of a series, and that the feeling I was getting from the book was the way I feel when confronted with an origin story: it needs to be gotten over with, if told at all. (I think origin stories are often unnecessary but that's for another day.) I'd have liked that a lot better than having the finale to the story compressed into the final 10% or so of the book.
Then there is the ending: although it plays into the setup and beginnings of the characters, the way it comes off is a bit deus ex machina ish. I won't spoil it for anyone who wants to read the book, but I found the ending a bit unsatisfying given everything that had come before. The book set up some pretty high stakes, only to have them not matter at all in the end; to get the effect of what I'm talking about, imagine that after everything that happened in Star Wars, instead of the rebels assaulting the Death Star, it simply blows up as it exits hyperspace and Princess Leia gives Han the money to pay off Jabba because the rebels just saved so much in not having to fight. While not the same thing as what happens in All The Birds, the feeling is the same.
I don't mean to run it down too much; the book is still a good one. I enjoyed reading it, but it never felt like it rose above standard fantasy/scifi fare. But for all that, Anders is a very good writer, and has some obviously great ideas, ideas that would have been better served with a book that more fully explored them instead of a book that just felt like it had to hit its marks on time.