Ian McDonald, the many times award-nominated author of The Dervish House and Brasyl, has always been on my bucket list. I love near-future Science Fiction. I love speculative works set in cultures foreign to me. I love slim stand-alone novels. McDonald hits on all of these fronts and every time he releases a novel it seems to do a fair round of the awards circuit. Yet, I’d never read any of his work. Part of my hesitancy, I think, was due to McDonald’s reputation for writing labyrinthine, intertwining plots featuring dense prose and asking the reader to work for the story. It takes dedication to read fiction in that manner and, well, I’m often lazy. But when McDonald announced that his next novel, Planesrunner, the first volume in the Everness series, would be a world-hopping Young Adult (YA) novel set in an alternate London full of airships and sky pirates, I knew I finally had an opportunity to give his work a fair shake. And I’m bloody glad I did.
The prose in Planesrunner was simpler than I expected, likely due to the YA audience, but also doesn’t speak down to its younger readers, weaving some wonderful imagery and thoughtful themes through the narrative. Like all literature, the best YA respects its readers and Planesrunner embraces that mentality. In a recent interview, McDonald touches on the nature of YA literature:
I’ve never really called it YA, because it’s targeted at a younger age-group — I believe it’s Middle Grade, in the hair-splitting terminologies of this kind of writing. I had many reasons, all of them honest. Most of all, it was the story that could only be told with these characters, in this way. It was a story I wanted to tell this way, for this age-group. I’d done some research. Boys read pretty damn voraciously until they’re thirteen, then a lot fall off for various reasons — games, peer pressure, too cool for that kind of thing, lack of stuff to read… At the same time, the BBC did some research into who watches Doctor Who — and by that, I mean ‘appointment to view’ — who decides to turn the telly on and watch it, and they found it was fourteen year-old boys. So I thought, can I do something that gives the same eyekicks and the same level of complexity — it’s only adults who whine about plots being difficult because they lack the mental agility and ability to concentrate and be absorbed that kids have — as Doctor Who, in book form. But aim it at that age-gap: 13 year-old boys — not forgetting the girls as well. Make it’s smart, stretch imaginations a little, make it SF because there’s an awful lot of fantasy out there. Make it different and fresh — no, not another dystopia. Introduce the idea of learning how scientists think and look at the world — because it’s very different from what we think.
It’s clear that McDonald put a lot of effort into what really makes an appealing novel for younger readers, and in the process peels back the layers to examine what makes YA so much more enjoyable than a lot of ‘adult’ fiction. Most interesting is the idea that younger readers have an improved mental agility that allows them to jump around the story, absorbing different ideas, concepts and plot strings without needing the constant infodumps and explanations that bog down so much of adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. When a reader trusts the author, as McDonald suggests that younger readers are more capable of doing as compared to older readers, the author is freed up to concentrate on a fun, exciting story that’s able to develop its themes and characters rather than hand-holding its reader through a new world. Often you’re left just having to accept that things fall easily into place for Everett, the titular protagonist, but the reward is McDonald being free to throw him into some sticky situations without the reader losing their sense of reality.
McDonald’s prose is very stream-of-consciousness, which also suggests an intentional connection to his thoughts above, but never becomes turgid or difficult to read, in fact, the novel blazes by and its difficult not to feel like you’re alongside Everett for the entire ride:
The car was black. Black body shell, black wheels, black bumpers, black windows. The rain sat on its shiny skin like drops of black oil. A black car on a black night. Everett Singh zipped his jacket up to his chin and flipped up his hood against the cold wind and watched the black car crawl behind his dad, pedalling his bicycle up the Mall. It was a bad bike night. Tree branches lashed and beat. Wind is the cyclist’s enemy. (p. 1)
The setup is somewhat reminiscent of Tad Williams’ classic Otherland series: many varied worlds waiting for our protagonists to explore, each offering its own set of rules and dangers, but controlled by a powerful (and likely nefarious) corporation that wants to use the secrets of these worlds for its own means. The back-cover blurb:
There is not one you. There are many yous. There is not one world. There are many worlds. Ours is one among billions of parallel earths.
When Everett Singh’s scientist father is kidnapped from the streets of London, he leaves young Everett a mysterious app on his computer. Suddenly, this teenager has become the owner of the most valuable object in the multiverse—the Infundibulum—the map of all the parallel earths, and there are dark forces in the Ten Known Worlds who will stop at nothing to get it. They’ve got power, authority, the might of ten planets—some of them more technologically advanced than our Earth—at their fingertips. He’s got wits, intelligence, and a knack for Indian cooking.
To keep the Infundibulum safe, Everett must trick his way through the Heisenberg Gate that his dad helped build and go on…
Unfortunately, Planesrunner itself, in all its 269 pages, fails to live up to the promise of infinite worlds. For all the worlds waiting to be explored by Everett via the Infundibulum (basically an iPad app that allows the holder to unravel a map of the multiverse), it’s with some measure of disappointment that the reader only gets to explore one of these alternate Earths, a sorta-Victorian, sorta-Steampunk world that features a London whose skies are filled with airships. This alternate London is fascinating and McDonald plays with familiar Steampunk devices, but mixes in just enough technological advancement (Everett’s iPad-like device, laser-like weaponry) to convince the reader that they are playing in a new playground, but often left me feeling like I wanted to see more of these worlds, rather than an extended trip through a singular version of London. The ending to the novel promises big things, but also suggests that Everett’s world-hopping will be confined to a single world at a time, rather than traipsing through and exploring a mosaic of alien Earths, really allowing McDonald to plumb his imagination. Previously comparing this opening volume to Williams’ Otherland series, in which the real world hopping didn’t begin in earnest until the second volume, forces me to consider that that when the Everness series is said and done, and the infinite worlds of the multiverse have been plumbed, this complaint might be negligible.
The novel’s most intriguing mystery, the shadowy and technologically superior ‘Earth 1,’ is barely touched upon in Planesrunner. In a long running series (and it looks like this series will stretch beyond a trilogy), it’s important for the author to dangle a carrot in front of the reader, but when that carrot is hyped by the narrative as being a more interesting dish than what we’re being fed, it can be hard for the reader to swallow. I often found myself thinking, “Man, this London is pretty neat… but what’s on Earth 1? When do we get to go there?” It’s either a brilliant move by McDonald to ensure that I’ll read further entries in the series (and I certainly will) or a frustrating tease.
Everett himself is a little magoo and often falls into Gary Stu-territory, especially where his god-like soccer-honed agility and hyper-intelligence are concerned, and McDonald adds some flavour to Everett through his relationship with his missing father (and their mutual love for Tottenham Hotspur), but its the cast of characters around him that really shine. From his cute sister, Victory Rose, to Sen, the firecracker/love interest/sky pirate, to the crew of the airship Everness, Everett is surrounded by friends and foes that remained with me well after I turned the final page and helped both Everett and the reader transition to Planesrunner’s strange new London.
Planesrunner grabs the reader from the first page, launching Everett straight into a multiverse-spanning conspiracy and doesn’t let up until the final page. It clocks in at a slim 296 pages, but McDonald fills those pages with so much action, so many tremendous set pieces and mind-twisting concepts that the reader will have to consciously force themselves to come up for air. The loose stream-of-conciousness prose creates a frenetic pace that ensures Planesrunner will be over before you know it.
Often time, Planesrunner reads like the novelization of a teenage daydreaming during math class. There’s a frustrating love interest who’s charming, capable and endlessly interesting, airships, death-defying leaps of faith and more than a little responsibility heaped on the shoulders of a 14-year-old who yearns to break away from the shackles of youth. There’s a certain suspension of disbelief necessary from adult readers, but like the daydreams of our youths, Planesrunner is a cracking adventure, full of likable characters, endless promise and a fascinating imagination. The sequel, Everness, is already finished and slated for release in 2012, and I’ll be on board for the ride.