Planesrunner: Airships, quantum mechanics and a hero you care about

YA SFF book reviews Ian McDonald Everness 1. PlanesrunnerYA SFF book reviews Ian McDonald Everness 1. PlanesrunnerPlanesrunner by Ian McDonald

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.

Planesrunneris 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.

~Stefan Raets

Planesrunner by Ian McDonaldEverett 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.

~Marion Deeds

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

View all posts by Stefan Raets (RETIRED)


  1. I’m glad to hear about this one! I’ll get a copy for my son who just entered “YA” last week.

  2. Sitting on my to-read bookshelves (we’re way past just one shelf at this point, or even one bookshelf) for a while, but despite that he’s one of my favorite authors, haven’t gotten around to it. Think this moved it up a a shelf or two . . .

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