Patricia Delfine is a misfit witch who accidentally finds herself caught in the middle of a massive battle between magic and science. All the Birds in the Sky, the debut novel by Hugo winner and io9 editor Charlie Jane Anders, was released at the beginning of 2016; it is the story of Patricia and her friend Laurence, who find themselves at the center of the conflict.
The story begins when Patricia and Laurence are young. Patricia is lost in the woods, and she only finds her way out after chatting with a few birds and making her way to the heart of the forest, where there is a large, magical tree. Patricia’s parents, and Patricia too, come to believe that the story is just the ranting of a little girl who was lost for too long in the woods. Meanwhile, Laurence is also a young boy, and he’s built himself a Two Second Time Machine, a small device that can send the user forward in time 2 seconds; he’s also building a supercomputer in his closet. In these childhood moments are the germs of what Patricia and Laurence will grow up to do, to be.
Patricia is….Odd. She can speak to birds and likes spending as much time in the woods as possible. She befriends Laurence, who is just as odd. The two both have problems relating to their parents and their peers, and they seem to feel a kinship with one another. All the Birds in the Sky is structured around the ways their lives intersect—and because they drift apart and come back together several times, the sections of the book are sometimes years apart.
Their initial separation comes as adolescents, when Patricia is recruited to join a school of magic and leaves to learn witchcraft. The school is a confusing mixture of the two types of magic in the world–Healing Magic and Trickster magic–and Patricia finds her education a difficult one. She still seems to be an outcast in many respects, and she is repeatedly cautioned against Aggrandizement, because the one rule that witches seem to have and hold dear is that they should not seek power or renown for themselves. Patricia is still not sure how to interpret her childhood conversation with the birds and the tree, but she tells the story to her classmates. It becomes a tale of power for them, and a group coalesces that decides to take action against a new pipeline that could destroy parts of the environment—but this ends in bloodshed, and Patricia is widely blamed for the misadventure.
Laurence, meanwhile, has learned more science and joined a group that is trying to work out a way to move humans to another habitable planet, sensing the impending point-of-no-return and wanting to ensure the survival of the species. But here lies the core of the conflict between magic and science–the witches are also worried about the point-of-no-return, but they want to save the entire planet. It’s all a matter of perspective. Because the science think tank sees humans as a unique species, unmatched in the universe, they privilege preserving human life and colonizing other parts of the galaxy. Because the witches and wizards draw most of their power from the earth and its creatures, they hold all species as equal and contend that the earth itself is what makes human life possible, so it must be saved at all costs. Anders makes us care about this conflict by giving us two humans, small and frail against the scale of it all but still very powerful.