Everett Singh sees his father kidnapped and forced into a big black car in the middle of London. Everett even gets photos with his cell phone, but the police don’t believe him. He gives them the memory chip from his phone so they can study the photos, and when the chip is returned, the photos have been altered. Plainly the police are in on what whatever happened, and it seems to be tied to the computer file that Everett got from his father a few hours after the kidnapping, a file that is for him only.
This is how Planesrunner, the first book in Ian McDonald’s EVERNESS series, starts off. Everett’s dad is a quantum physicist, probably a brilliant one, but Everett’s understanding of quantum physics surpasses his father’s. Everett can easily think in multiple dimensions. The file, which his father named the Infundibulum, is a list of all the discovered alternate universes, all 1080 of them. Nine versions of earth before ours created portals to other planes, called Heisenberg Gates in our universe. Everett’s father developed our Heisenberg Gate, and was working with scientists and politicians from Earth 2 (E2) and E3 when he disappeared.
Everett uses our Heisenberg Gate to leap into E3, where he has intuited that Charlotte Villiers, the book’s villain, has taken his father. In E3, Everett meets the crew of the airship Everness: Captain Anastasia; her adopted daughter Sen, who carries a deck of mysterious handmade cards, the Everness version of the Tarot; Sharkey, a southern gentleman from the Confederate States of America who quotes scripture and perhaps can’t be trusted; and Mchynlyth, the engineer, who also a bit more than he seems.
One thing I really enjoy about this series is that everyday people in E3 know about the alternate universes, but it isn’t a big part of their lives; it’s just some government thing. The Everness crew has problems of its own. The captain is willing to help rescue Everett’s father, but there are obstacles. They must evade a crime boss who is angry because the Everness lost some of his cargo, and they must fight an airship duel over Goodwin Sands, one of the best scenes in the book. McDonald also cleverly sets up the aftermath of the duel as part of the plan to rescue Everett’s father.
I like the way McDonald truly thought out the world of E3. It is not a steampunk world; in fact, E3 skipped the steam age entirely and went straight to electricity. E3 does not have large reserves of petroleum, so nearly everything is electrical, powered, in England at least, by coal. This is a realistic explanation for airships instead of planes. Beyond the technology, McDonald created a world with its own architecture, fashion, music and even language, giving the Airish, or airship people, their own language, Palari. Palari is a parallel English that is really spoken in our world and McDonald thoughtfully provides a glossary at the end of the book.
Everett, who is mathematically brilliant, athletic, bold, intuitive and a brilliant cook, is a little too perfect, but he is emotionally vulnerable and there are two humanizing scenes in this book, one where he misses his mother and sister with Christmas coming up, and one where he deals with the guilt he feels over a pair of rings he stole from a friend’s mom so he would have something of value to convert to cash in E3. This scene was powerful for a several reasons. It shows Everett being smart and practical they way most people who visit alternate universes are not; it shows the ruthlessness of his own character (he stole his best friend’s mom’s wedding ring); and it shows him feeling remorse. He knows what he did was wrong, and more importantly, imagines how his friend’s mom will feel when she sees the rings are missing. Everett pawns the rings but keeps the ticket and promises himself that he’ll get them back to their owner.
Villiers is a selfish, competent, polished villain who reminded me slightly of Mrs. Coulter in Philip Pullman’s series HIS DARK MATERIALS. It may just be the way she dresses. Most importantly, she is smart and tough enough to make Everett work for every small victory, which is exactly what a villain should do. The act she takes at the end of the book is shocking, as it should be, but not a surprise.
Planesrunner is a great beginning to an exciting new series. McDonald’s action sequences are good, he is playful with language in a way that I like, and his prose is crisp. Everett faces moral issues, like taking the rings, and serious emotional ones, like the quest for his father. He knows, and the reader knows, that his actions will affect more than one world. As a bonus, McDonald weaves quantum physics into the book in an engaging way. This is a young adult novel, but read it yourself; there’s no reason the kids should get to have all the fun.