I’m a pretty big fan of Ian McDonald, so when I learned that a brand new novel by the author was on the way, I got suitably excited. Then, when I found out that the new novel would be the start of a series, and that this series would deal with alternate dimensions and multiverse-type ideas (very different from his last few books), I got really excited. And then, when I discovered that the series would be a young adult series—well, it took me a while to come down from that one.
So, here it is: Planesrunner, book one in Ian McDonald’s brand new Everness series, which—based on this first novel—I hope will be a very long series of YA science fiction novels. Boy, this book was fun.
One night in London, fourteen-year-old Everett Singh is witness to his father’s kidnapping. The man disappears without a trace, and the authorities seem strangely unmotivated to pursue the investigation. Everett’s father, who is a theoretical physicist, left him the Infundibulum, a mysterious app which turns out to be the map of an infinite number of parallel universes. Armed with nothing but the Infundibulum and his wits, Everett sets out on a multi-dimensional quest to find his father….
Everett Singh is a wonderful main character who balances the delicate line between normal and awesome. On the one hand, he’s a fairly average, somewhat geeky British teenager. He’s the goalkeeper for his school’s soccer team. He likes Tottenham Hotspur. His parents are divorced, and he’s clearly still trying to cope with the break-up of his family. On the other hand, his dad is a genius physicist specializing in quantum theory, and it so happens that Everett has inherited his dad’s massive intellect—as well as his love of cooking. (Some of their get-togethers are soccer games, others are science lectures, and all of them are followed by spectacular cook-outs themed around one country’s cuisine. Like some of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books, this novel frequently made me really hungry.) Everett is occasionally a bit too perfect to be believable, but reading about his exploits is definitely never boring, and Ian McDonald throws in enough human touches to make Everett believable.
Ian McDonald tones down his usual, elegant prose to a more simple, functional style in Planesrunner, maybe because this is a YA novel. Sometimes the prose is downright chatty and occasionally funny, like when Everett thinks that a female constable looks “like a male comedian playing a female police officer.” Still, McDonald occasionally can’t help himself and throws in gorgeous lines like “She moved like a golden silk scarf falling through water” or “His signature looked like a spider car crash.” Combine this with the fast, fun dialogues that fill this novel and you have a book that practically reads itself.
Planesrunner is one of those novels that grabs hold of you from the very beginning and then just never lets go until the very end. The kidnapping happens on page 2, and it’s full speed ahead from that point on, with Everett trying to discover who is responsible, how the Infundibulum works, and ultimately how to retrieve his father. This will take him through a Heisenberg Gate to an alternate dimension, landing in a steampunk-like London that’s, pardon my fanboy, so insanely cool that it just about blows any other steampunk London clean out of the water. It comes complete with its own supremely entertaining vernacular, the wildest clothing style ever, and the most realistic airships I’ve ever read. (I could read an entire Aubrey-Maturin series of books about Anastasia Sixsmyth and her Merry Men.) And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Planesrunner really only covers one world—two if you count our own—out of the Plenitude of Ten Known Worlds. Can we have ten books, please?
One of the best aspects of this novel is its cast of side characters. As I mentioned above, Everett occasionally got on my nerves a bit with his supreme intellect and his perfect Indian appetizers, but like a movie in which the lead actor is outplayed by the supporting cast, this novel is sometimes completely taken over by the people surrounding Everett. Especially Sen Sixsmyth, the wild, bratty, mysterious navigator of the Everness is an attention grabber, but the rest of the crew of the airship is equally entertaining. Even back on our Earth, Everett’s mother is hilarious, first embarrassed at being caught in her tracksuit over breakfast by the detectives who are investigating her husband’s disappearance, then indignantly declaring that “this is a hi-fibre household” when one of the cops tries to mooch some toast and finds there’s only wholegrain available. These perfect little slice-of-life scenes juxtapose perfectly with the vivid, weird multiverse material and really highlight how solid even the minor characters are. My only complaint would be that the villains are a bit too over-the-top villainy, but really, in a novel that features a teenager crossing dimensions to rescue his kidnapped quantum physicist dad, you’d expect the contrast to be turned up a bit.
To top it all off, if this YA novel finds its way into the hands of the adults who are impatiently hovering in the periphery of its target audience, they’ll discover several fun little side-jokes and references that may not make sense (yet) to people born in the last few decades, and that’s not even mentioning some of the subtleties and recurring themes that fans of the author will recognize. This is a YA novel that definitely has a lot to offer to not-so-YA readers.
It’s rare when a book is more or less exactly what you hoped it would be, but Planesrunner is just that. I had a blast with this novel, and I can’t wait for the next book in the Everness series. As Sen Sixsmyth would say, this book was utterly bonaroo.