A young witch and a wild science genius—the characters in my new novel All the Birds in the Sky don’t even belong in the same book together. They’re misfits in the eyes of the world, but they’re also weird to each other. And that turns out to be the most fun thing to explore. Read an excerpt and see for yourself!
All the Birds in the Sky has been out for a week or so, and it’s been an intense ride. Getting to geek out with people about this book has been really fun. This is a book that brings together two different genres—but more than that, it’s about two people who belong to two different worlds, and how they learn from each other.
Patricia, the witch, feels isolated and miserable in middle school, but then she grows up and joins a whole secret community of witches. Laurence is bullied and misunderstood as a kid, but then he gets to work with some of the coolest science geeks on Earth as an adult. I feel like this book ended up having a lot of stuff about growing up weird and then finding the people you belong with—and the ways that that, too, can get complicated and scary.
So I’m stoked to share with you an excerpt from All the Birds in the Sky, focusing on the part where Laurence meets all of Patricia’s fellow witches for the first time. I’m also reading from the book tonight at Skylight Books in Los Angeles!
Danger: Bookstore Is Open!
Laurence had just enough time to run home, take a quick shower, and change before he had to be back in the Mission to see Patricia. They were meeting at some kind of used bookstore where one of the witches lived. Like, he was disabled or homebound or something, so he just spent all day and all night in his tiny bookshop, which Laurence suspected was illegal, right?
He was the kind of sleep deprived where he saw LCD-monitor ghosts when he closed his eyes. When he was a couple blocks away from that bookstore, on the corner near the bacon-wrapped sausage cart, Laurence felt a panic attack starting. He was going to say the wrong thing, and these people would turn him into a knickknack. Like Mr. Rose.
“Practice your breathing,” Laurence told himself. He managed to get some oxygen into his brain, and it was like a temporary workaround for sleep deprivation. He was probably dehydrated thanks to this crazy heat wave, so he bought some water from the bacon-wrapped sausage guy. Then he made himself walk to the three-story mall with the Spanish-language signs. For Patricia, whom he sensed he really wanted in his life.
The mall looked deserted, and there was only one bulb on the ground floor to guide him to the winding staircase that led, past beauty-supply stores that looked dead, up to the top floor, where a sign read: “DANGER. BOOKSTORE IS OPEN.” Laurence hesitated, then pushed open the doorway to Danger Bookstore, with a jangle of chimes.
The bookstore was one surprisingly spacious room, with an ancient rug that looked symmetrical until you noticed that the big wheel of fire and flowers at the center was rolling off to the right. Bookshelves covered the walls and also jutted sideways into the room, and they were divided into categories like “Exiles And Stowaways,” “Ideas Too Good to Be True,” or “Scary Love Stories.” The books were about half-English, half-Spanish. Besides books, every shelf had memorabilia perched on its edge: an ancient ceremonial dagger, a plastic dragon, an assortment of ancient coins, and a whalebone that supposedly came from Queen Victoria’s corset.
Laurence didn’t get two steps inside Danger before someone ran an ultraviolet wand over him, to kill most of the bacteria on his skin. Patricia rose from one of the fancy upholstered chairs and hugged him, whispering that Laurence must not touch Ernesto, the man on the red chaise longue—the one who never left the bookstore. Ernesto hadn’t been out in the sun for decades, but his skin was still a warm brown, and his long, high-cheekboned face had deep wrinkles. His gray hair was in a single braid, and he wore eyeliner or kohl around his eyes. He was wearing a crimson smoking jacket and silky blue pajama pants, so his outfit looked quasi-Hefnerian. He greeted Laurence without rising from his chaise.
Everybody was super-friendly. Laurence’s first impression wasn’t of any one person, but just of a gaggle of people all talking at the same time and clustering around him, with Patricia watching from across the room.
A short older lady with wide glasses on a string, and black-and-white hair in an elaborate bun, started telling Laurence about the time her shoe had fallen in love with a sock that was much too big. A tall, handsome Japanese man in a suit, with a neat beard, asked Laurence questions about Milton’s finances, which he found himself answering without thinking. And a young person of indeterminate gender, with short spiky brown hair and a gray hoodie, wanted to know who Laurence’s favorite superhero was. Ernesto kept quoting the poetry of Daisy Zamora.
They all just seemed so nice, Laurence didn’t mind that they were all talking at once and overflowing his buffers. Probably this was because of the magic thing, and he ought to freak out. But he was too tired to make himself worry about things that didn’t already worry him on their own. Laurence was nervous that he smelled like bacon-wrapped sausage fumes.
The bookstore had no musty “old books” smell, and instead it had a nice oaky aroma, similar to the way Laurence imagined the whiskey casks would be before you put Scotch into them for aging. This was a place where you would age well. There was some debate over whether they would go out for dinner— everybody except Ernesto, that is—or just bring in food. “Maybe we could check out that new hipster tapas place,” suggested Patricia.
“Tapas!” Dorothea, the elderly lady, clapped her hands, so her bracelets rang.
The person of unknown gender, whose name rather unhelpfully was Taylor, said perhaps Laurence would be more comfortable on neutral ground.
“Yes, yes, you must go,” Ernesto said in his gravelly voice with a hint of a Latin accent. “Go! Do not worry about me at all.” In the end, Ernesto insisted so loudly that they simply must leave him behind, everybody wound up offering to stay in with him.
Laurence couldn’t help wondering if he’d just witnessed a wizard duel.
Somehow, they managed to catch the Korean taco truck driving from one location to another, and bought a dozen spicy bulgogi and barbecue tofu tacos while it was stopped at a red light. Laurence’s taco had a lot of cilantro and onions, the way he secretly liked it. His anxiety melted away, and he envied Patricia for having such charming friends. If this had been a gathering of Laurence’s tribe, by now someone would already have tried to prove they were the supreme expert on some topic. There would have been dick-measuring. Instead, these people just seemed to accept one another and feed each other tacos.
They all got seats on folding chairs or the handful of actual armchairs in the bookstore. Laurence wound up sitting between Taylor, the young person of indeterminate gender, and Dorothea, the lady of indeterminate age.
Dorothea smiled and leaned over as Laurence chewed his taco. “I once owned a restaurant that had doorways in a dozen cities around the world,” she whispered. “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?” Laurence wasn’t sure if she was telling a real story or just taking the piss, or both. He stared, and all at once her face was full of laugh lines.
After dinner, Ernesto sauntered to a bookcase labeled “Parties That Already Ended,” which was mainly histories of various empires. He removed a Decline and Fall with a flourish and the bookcase swung open, revealing a passageway leading to a secret bar, with a neon fairy on the wall and a sign proclaiming it to be the Green Wing. The Green Wing was another oblong, spacious room like Danger Books, but this one was dominated by a circular wooden bar in the center of the room, with a single rack full of absinthe. Art nouveau maidens and crystal dragons and parchment scripts adorned the bottles, which were every size and shape. A few people wearing corsets and poofy skirts were already drinking at a high table in the far corner, but they all waved at Ernesto.
Ernesto climbed inside the bar and started pouring from bottles into shakers. Patricia got next to Laurence long enough to whisper in his ear that he should be careful with any drink made or touched by Ernesto. “Take small sips,” she advised. “If you plan on having a brain tomorrow.”
None of these people seemed to be super-influential, and if they ruled the world they were doing a good job of hiding it. In fact, every other conversation was about how messed up the world was and how they wished things could be different. Ernesto mixed Laurence something bright green that captured the neon light, and he caught Patricia’s warning gaze before lifting it to his mouth. It smelled so delicious, he had to make a mighty effort to avoid pouring it through his lips. His mouth was full of wonder and joy, and there were so many sharp and sweet and bright flavors that he needed to keep sipping to identify half of them.
Laurence was legless. He stumbled until someone helped him into a brocaded eighteenth-century chair that he could not find his way out of again. He realized that this was a perfect opportunity to ask some questions about magic, since nobody could blame the drunk guy for being nosey. Right? He raised his head and looked into the swarm of blurry shapes and lights, and strained to form a not-too-rude question. He was unable to find a verb to save his life. Or a noun.
Top image: Carnivale on Mission Street, photo by SharonaGott/Flickr