I’ve always been a fan of Ian McDonald’s adult novels. While they overflow with ideas and insights there quite dense in regard to plotting and theme (in a good way). They’re books that need to be unpacked and discussed and cogitated over.
Empress of the Sun (book three in the Everness series) couldn’t be different. That’s not say it’s thin in terms of character and plot and ideas. Just the opposite. McDonald has brought one of his great strengths, his vivid imagination, and applied it to the Young Adult oeuvre. But he’s also pared down his writing style (there’s still some beautiful passages but it doesn’t have the richness of the adult novels) and, more importantly, he’s put the foot down on the accelerator. While books like Brasyl and The Dervish House have their moments of action and adventure and drama and tension, they don’t compare to the unstoppable rollercoaster that is Empress of the Sun. You can tell that McDonald is having an absolute blast writing this book, allowing his inner twelve-year-old to inspire some magnificent set pieces.
I haven’t read the first two novels in the series – I know, shame on me – but without stuffing the reader with backstory and exposition, McDonald doesn’t leave the newbie reader stranded. Basically, parallel worlds exist and a small number of the “known” worlds, or Earths, can be accessed by gates. Everett Singh’s Dad has come up with a device that allows a person to access a parallel world without needing to use a gate. For certain nefarious characters in the multiverse, specifically Charlotte Villiers, this technology will give the wielder great influence and power. At some point, I assume early in the first novel, Everett’s father goes missing – Charlotte uses a “jump gun” to send him into the multiverse without an anchor – and Everett steals away his father’s invention. The series then follows Everett as he (a) searches for his lost father (b) evades capture from Charlotte and her henchman (c) meets the Captain of a zeppelin called the Everness – from a multiple Earth where fossil fuel was never discovered (in other words steampunk Earth) – and with the crew of the Everness gets into all sorts of shenanigans involving a plague of nanobots, alien technology and an evil cyborg twin. Oh, and Everett also happens to be a polymath – as smart as his Dad, or smarter – which is helpful when you’re in a tight scrape and you need someone who can knock out a life-saving algorithm in a matter of moments.
In Empress of the Sun, Everett and the crew of the Everness, escaping the clutches of Charlotte, find themselves on a parallel world where Earth has been replaced with a ginormous discworld (and yes, McDonald can’t help but lovingly reference Pratchett). On that discworld they discover… yes, you guessed it… intelligent dinosaurs who have spent millions and millions of years (a) perfecting the sort of technology that allows you to build a discworld in the first place and (b) fighting amongst each other. And that’s just scraping the surface of the barmy ideas on display. None of them seem brand new, I’m sure someone else has written an SF story involving smart dinosaurs, but in the hands of McDonald they feel like they’ve been given a fresh coat of paint. A colour that’s bright and exciting and vibrant.
What I found astounding is how quickly I was drawn into the narrative even though I’d not read the first two books. Everett and the crew of the Everness, especially the Captain’s daughter, Sen, who has a thing for Everett and talks in Palari, are engaging and fun to spend time with. But the real surprise package was the character arc involving Everett’s evil cyborg twin back on our Earth. With the real Everett elsewhere, Everett M (as he’s referred to) finds himself living his twin’s life. And rather than sabotage that life or threaten Everett’s mother and daughter, Everett M sees an opportunity to make a home from himself. There’s something empowering and redemptive about Everett M’s attempts to be a better cyborg / person while hiding his true nature from everyone he knows.
Best of all McDonald gives us a climax that’s genuinely satisfying (even though a number of plot threads are not resolved) The ending – which I won’t spoil – is so cinematic you can imagine the CGI and you can smell the popcorn.
Empress of the Sun is fantastic stuff. Not deep and meaningful (though there are some nice discussions about making tough choices and taking responsibility for your actions) but so very fun. The sort of fun that will have you laughing with excitement and regretting that you started with Book Three.