She does magic, he's a gifted inventor, and they just might be perfect for each other if they don't unwittingly destroy the world first. All the Birds in the Sky is the sort of urban fantasy charmer that we used to see when "urban fantasy" referred, not to sexy paranormal vampire-hunter cheese, but to stories of characters facing magic and wonder and danger in the course of navigating contemporary daily life. Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, Gene Wolfe's Free Live Free, or any number of books by Charles de Lint would qualify. In her debut fantasy, the io9 editor's gift for witty and affectionate insights into character, particularly the habit so many of us have of being the biggest obstacle to our own success, makes the novel a nonstop parade of delights. All the Birds may not have the tightest plot construction you've ever seen in your life, but you won't really notice. What you'll take from it is an overabundance of warmth, humor and heart.
As an adolescent, Patricia Delfine discovers she can, on occasion, speak to animals, and she encounters a Parliament of Birds who present her with a strange riddle that will haunt her into adulthood. Her nerdy classmate, Laurence Armstead, hates to be called anything but "Laurence," and enjoys cobbling together such useless bits of tech wizardry as a two-second time machine. It is possible that the homemade AI he's got stuffed into his closet might amount to something, though.
Both Patricia and Laurence are, of course, outsiders, both among their peers and their self-absorbed, status-obsessed families. Their own friendship is a little tug of war, both of them drawn to one another while also pulled apart by their awareness of the social liabilities they pose simply by being who they are. Charlie Jane possibly owes a bit of a debt to Rowling here, as these scenes of her own heroes' abuse-ridden high-school experiences manage to create in the reader the same mixed emotions of comedy and distress you may have felt reading of Harry Potter's maltreatment by the Dursleys.
But beyond that, Charlie Jane's story is entirely her own, and any reader who grew up feeling ostracized and alienated from their peers will find themselves relating here in ways many other stories won't let you connect with. Charlie Jane has a gift for pithy turns of phrase and a prose style, honed by years in the blog trenches, that's brisk, wry and funny without being self-conscious about it.
As adults, Patricia has been whisked away to a magical academy to train her talents, while Laurence's geek genius has led him into the lightning-paced world of tech startups, where his current employer is really into wanting to build wormholes. There's happily nothing Hogwartsian about Patricia's school, which instills in her a determination to do small acts of kindness for random people while always being wary of the sin of Aggrandizement. It's true that, while being young and idealistic is a great thing, it can get out of hand, and sometimes the greatest harm can result from the most altruistic motives. Embarrassingly, Patricia found herself involved in exactly such a scenario during her tenure in school. But it's only years later that the long-term effects of the one big mistake she and some of her peers made are making themselves felt. And humanity itself may well pay the price.
Yes, the ending feels a little abrupt, and there are the occasional holes I kind of wish had been filled. (I would've liked to know more about the Nameless Order of Assassins — which is actually a name — who are briefly mentioned and then forgotten.) But then there are moments where you're encouraged to connect some storytelling dots yourself, a risky approach that Charlie Jane pulls off deftly. The world that she has created here is full of masterfully subtle touches, such as the matter-of-fact way in which science and magic co-exist. And yet it's the misunderstanding and suspicion between the two disciplines that risks keeping either Patricia or Laurence from solving the crisis at hand. The story's conflict is rooted in this confusion, the way Patricia and Laurence are opposites and yet so much the same, how they both need and repel each other, and the way in which the two worlds they represent find it so hard to realize they've got to ally and not war with one another if they ever hope to stop disaster in its tracks. Always, Patricia and Laurence are the story's emotional center, and it's the compassion and humanity Charlie Jane brings to them both that is this novel's purest magic.