Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

EmpressoftheSunI don’t usually get this effusive about books, but I’ve rarely had as much fun with a Young Adult SF series as I have with Ian McDonald’s Everness—now up to three books with the brand new, shiny addition of Empress of the Sun, possibly the best book of the bunch so far.

Quick intro to the series: young Everett Singh is a math whiz who, early in the series, gets access to the Infundibulum, which is essentially a map of all the parallel universes and alternate Earths. Combined with the Heisenberg trans-dimensional gates, this allows for travel to the Nine Known Worlds: alternate versions of our planet where, for example, there’s no oil or everyone has a telepathic twin or there are five different species of mankind.

On the first alternate Earth Everett encounters, he meets the crew of the airship Everness, an endlessly fascinating group of folks led by the formidable Captain Anastasia and also including her adopted daughter Sen Sixsmyth, engineer Mchynlyth, and weighmaster Miles O’Rahilly Lafayette Sharkey. They speak a colorful lingo called “palari” that’s like English with generous amounts of thieves’ cant and bastardized foreign words thrown in. They bicker constantly but love each other and their ship fiercely. It’s a group of folks I could read about forever. They are, as you’d say in palari, utterly bonaroo.

From here on, I may refer to some events from the previous two books. If you wish to avoid spoilers, stop reading here and check out my reviews of Planesrunner and Be My Enemy instead. So, once again: spoilers ahead.

Empress of the Sun basically picks up right where Be My Enemy left off. Everett has just brought the Everness through a random Heisenberg Gate. The alter-Everett (usually called Everett M in this book) is still on Earth—that’s Earth 10, our Earth—living with the original Everett’s family. He looks like a normal kid but still has all the alien Thryn enhancements that basically turn him into a super-powerful combat cyborg. And, he also brought a sample of the world-destroying Nahn technology with him from the quarantined Earth 1. Meanwhile, Charlotte Villiers is still hunting the original Everett to obtain the Infundibulum and do, well, super-villainy things with it.

So far, so good? Not really. In the opening scene, the Everness more or less crash-lands coming through its dimensional portal, half-destroying the ship and turning most of the crew against Everett. While repairs get started, it becomes clear that the ship has arrived at not so much an alternate Earth but an Alderson Disc, a plate-shaped astronomical megastructure reaching all the way from the orbit of Mercury to Jupiter. (Everett can’t help himself and immediately starts referring to it as the “Diskworld.”)

See, in this version of Earth, the dinosaurs never died out, giving them millions of years of head-start in terms of evolution, diversification and technological advancement. The dominant species is called the Jiju, and it’s a representative of this species who encounters the Everness crew and decides that this inter-dimensional traveling thing would be a great help for them in terms of gaining dominance over their competitors and expanding their empire.

Meanwhile on Earth (again, our Earth) Everett M is going through all the things a normal 14 year old boy who is endowed with impossibly powerful cyborg weaponry and carries around a sample of a potentially world-ending nanotechnological invasive species would go through: that is, he develops a crush on a girl. And thanks to being able to crush soda cans between his fingers and perform impossible-seeming feats on the soccer pitch, said girl actually notices him.

The result is a novel that switches back and forth between two storylines that are so different it’s almost dizzying. Everett 1 is dealing with hyper-intelligent mind-reading super-dinosaurs who can control the Sun, while Everett 2 is dealing with a girl crush. Everett 1 is exposed to the most mind-blowing far-future technology, while Everett 2 must handle rude online comments when his sort-of-girlfriend sets up a Facebook page honoring his physique. Everett 1 is having adventures on an impossible galaxy-sized artifact full of insane technological marvels and mind-bending palaces (at one point he’s so awe-struck he breathes “That’s so Warhammer 40K”), while Everett 2 divides his time between home, school, and the much more prosaic streets of Stokington.

To be fair, the plot of these books does sometimes push the boundaries of believability, with the occasional crazy coincidence or hitherto-unknown twist on technology needed to keep everything moving in the right direction. This doesn’t in any way diminish the fun though: these are wild, action-packed adventures with a lot of heart and nary a slow moment. Especially this latest installment, with its sentient space dinosaurs, will delight folks who occasionally yearn for a good old-fashioned pulp adventure. (It’s kind of amusing to see the über-rational Everett try to find scientific explanations for the bizarre technological marvels of the Jiju civilization. At one point, he ponders that bad science makes for bad SF, before facing some things that are, as they say, practically indistinguishable from magic.)

And through all of it, the characters continue to shine. I’ve already mentioned the crew of the Everness, who are just a pure joy to read about. In Empress of the Sun, you’ll actually find out about some of their backgrounds, proving again that this is the most entertaining bunch of misfits you’ll find in YA science fiction. The wonderful dynamic between Everett and Sen (who I absolutely love) continues to develop. On the other side, the alter-Everett actually becomes a much more believable and sympathetic character. I confess that I initially wasn’t too crazy about the whole Doppelgänger plot, but in this novel, it turns into a wonderful part of the overall picture.

It was simply a treat to get back into the crazy palari and strange fashions of the Everness books. It may sound bizarre, but this is the first time I’ve read a novel that actually made me feel like writing fan-fic about its characters, just because they’re so utterly fresh and surprising. The Everness series is technically Young Adult, but I believe any science fiction fan, young or old, would get sucked into these adventures.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: let the bona temps roll.

This review was originally published at Tor.com on February 3rd, 2014. 

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One Response to Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

  1. Paul Weimer says:

    Reviewing this series without spoiling it is flat out impossible!

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