All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
This book opens with a lot of charm. It reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman. A young girl named Patricia is in a forest and discovers that she can understand the language of birds and she’s lead to the center of the forest to the parliament of birds where she’s given a riddle and informed that she’s a witch. A young boy named Laurence (he refuses to be called Larry) is an engineering genius but his parents keep sending him to inferior schools, including a military school, to try to control his unusual tendencies. Laurence builds a time machine that goes on the wrist from instructions on the Internet. But the device will only take a person back two seconds, just enough to avoid trouble, and this becomes his passport to a world of people who think like he does.
What I feared, and Anders was bright enough to avoid, was that the book would turn into a Harry Potter wannabe, and while Patricia does spend some time in a magic school it mostly moves the narrative along without becoming the center of the book. She uses Patricia’s time in magic school to introduce characters who will play a valuable role in the rest of the book and no more. There are so many books with young witches and wizards going to school to learn their skills, and so many are bad. But this isn’t a soft, magical kind of book. Both Patricia and Laurence face challenges as they come together initially as friends who have being bullied in common, and then discover that their unique abilities are in a dangerous opposition with each other. The magical charm of the beginning of the book fades a bit but Anders manages to maintain quite a bit of humor as the book progresses.
Patricia and Laurence, after bad relationships with others, find each other. Patricia uses her magical skills to help others, which other witches dismiss as her aggrandizing herself. Laurence hones his technical skills and develops an artificial intelligence that begins programming itself in unrecognizable code when Patricia talks to it. But he also gets into dangerous experiments in antigravity and wormholes that threaten to destroy the world. This sets Patricia against Laurence. Both believe they can save the world, will magic or technology prevail? Or will they somehow combine?
It is a consistently funny book with unusual characters. Anders makes good choices in the narrative direction and the ending fulfills everything the book hopes to do.