“I feel like a fake witch”, said Patricia. “I can’t do anything. At all. My friend Laurence can build supercomputers and time machines and ray guns. He can make cool things happen any time he wants. I can’t make anything cool happen.
“Something cool,” the Tree said, in a gust of vowels and a clatter of consonants, “is happening. Right now.”
“Yes,” Patricia said, ashamed again. “Yes! Definitely! This is great. Really. But this just happened on its own. I can’t make anything happen when I want it to.”
“Your friend would control nature,” said the Tree, rustling through each syllable one by one. “A witch must serve nature.”
Patricia and Laurence are the two weird kids at their stifling and petty high school. They are friends despite their differences — Patricia knows she has the powers of a witch, but doesn’t know how to use them, whereas Laurence is a scientist and engineer, who frantically programs his supercomputer while trying to avoid the outdoor adventure camps mandated by his parents. They lose touch when their lives separate after school, but meet again as adults. By now Patricia is a junior witch dispensing vigilante justice in San Francisco, and Laurence is part of a technology startup trying to save the world with physics. Each is part of a community that opposes the other, and it will take all of their stubbornness and courage to preserve their friendship in the face of this antipathy.
The aspect I loved most about this story was the relationship between Laurence and Patricia — two people who start with perhaps little in common, but who, over time, grow to appreciate what the other has to offer them. The misunderstandings and false starts that inevitably happen on this journey feel like things that would happen to real people, rather than contrivances to merely drive the plot. I also loved the concept of Peregrine, the AI that Laurence and Patricia inadvertently create while they are at school, and which shows up in their adult lives to help them find their way back to each other.
Around this rather sweet narrative, there are some big themes. The most obvious, perhaps, is the clash between magic, as a force of nature, and science and the forward march of technology. We’re left in no doubt as to which we’re supposed to see as better, as Patricia-the-witch saves Laurence-the-scientist from the consequences of meddling in forces he doesn’t understand on more than one occasion. The environmental message is reiterated with a glimpse of the near-future effects of global warming, and subsequent gradual slide into a semi-apocalyptic setting.
There are also some lovely little touches and sentences, which make the book so delightful to read. I loved the concept of Caddies, little guitar-pick-shaped tablets that make peoples lives better in hundreds of small ways, so that they can’t live without them, and people are aware that they’re quite creepy but nonetheless can’t get rid of them. I loved the way that once the semi-apocalypse comes everybody takes up madrigal singing, to the delight of people who joked that their main fear of the apocalypse was the thought of people playing the acoustic guitar around a camp fire! And I loved this little vignette from one of Patricia’s fellow witches, which really stood out: “I once owned a restaurant that had doorways in a dozen cities around the world. Each entrance wore a different menu, advertising a different cuisine, but we had no kitchen. Just tables, tablecloths and chairs. We carried the dishes back and forth, between the cities in different lands. So were we a restaurant, or a conduit?”
All The Birds in The Sky was published on Tuesday and is available from Amazon.