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Review: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

by ◊ 3 years ago 2 Comments Switch View

Apologies for the late review; it seems the solstice ate all my time right up! – Phoebe

There is not one you. There are many yous. There is not one world. There are many worlds. Ours is one of 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 fourteen-year-old 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, and 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 his dad helped build and go on the run in a parallel Earth. But to rescue his Dad from Charlotte Villiers and the sinister Order, this Planesrunner’s going to need friends. Friends like Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, her adopted daughter Sen, and the crew of the airship Everness.

Can they rescue Everett’s father and get the Infundibulum to safety? The game is afoot!

-synopsis and cover art courtesy of goodreads.

Atmospheric Analysis: I usually like illustrated covers, and the composition on this one is striking, but the mildly white-washed Everett in his mysterious Tron suit–and Sen’s enormous head–have me scratching mine.

Planetary Class: This universe-hopping adventure sits firmly in the subgenre of alternate history. Think Sliders, but with airships.

Mohs Rating: McDonald invents several laws of phlebotinum, qualifying Planesrunner as a 3 on the Mohs scale–physics plus.

Planetary Viability: McDonald’s neo-Victorian world (don’t call it steampunk) is well-developed, with an elaborate, but believable history all its own.

Xenolinguistical Assessment: Lovely. The prose in Planesrunner has a rich, lyrical quality, particularly in its descriptions of Sen’s neo-Victorian universe.

Expanded Report: On paper, you might think that Planesrunner is a perfect YA sci-fi read. In fact, its admirable qualities must be acknowledged: its hero, Everett Singh, is a non-stereotyped person of color (half-Punjabi Indian, raised in London); the novel has a strong focus on physics and includes extended descriptions of the science and history that underlie its premises; its undeniably well-written, with florid prose that never quite crosses the line into overwritten; it takes place largely in a trendy steampunk setting. I can’t understate that in this way, this story of a young boy who loses his father and must cross over into another universe is precisely what most adult science fiction fans believe is lacking in young adult sci-fi.

Heck, Everett Singh is both a Whovian and a troper. As a huge fan of both, you’d think I’d be a sucker for this novel.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

It took me quite awhile to locate the source of my discomfort with the story. It begins strongly enough, with Everett’s father’s kidnapping and a description of his middle-class home. His parents have recently divorced; his mother is stressed by her former husband’s disappearance and the abrupt appearance of the police on her doorstep. Their household felt fairly real, despite the fantastic nature of Everett’s situation–as he meets a cardboard cut-out villain who has sent his dad into another universe, and as he learns about the technology that his father has left in his computer that will help him travel after to save him.

Unfortunately, I found my interest rapidly flagging. And while it perked up a bit when Everett enters another London, where fossil fuels were never harnessed for industry and instead all technology is coal-electric powered, and as I luxuriated in McDonald’s undeniably strong stylistics, I soon found myself floundering again. I enjoyed the airship (or “Airish”) society that Everett eventually joins; enjoyed, even more Sen, the rakish girl/airship pilot who acts as his guide. But there were considerable pacing problems in Planesrunner. Though many of the scenes were, ostensibly action scenes, they were also fairly trifling–descriptions of airship races or shopping excursions that had little-to-nothing to do with, you know, the plot.

But the more pressing problem was with Everett himself. He never congealed for me into a believable fourteen-year-old boy. First, his emotional responses were all muted. While on the surface, this upper-MG/lower-YA story shares much in common with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, unlike that classic, this novel does not begin or end with the emotional plight of its characters. Everett frequently acts in a way that suggests that he’s just . . . forgotten about his father’s disappearance, and the family he’s left behind. He’s much like a typical hard-science fiction hero, too concerned with describing the science of his world to bother with pesky feelings. While McDonald has stated that he was inspired by Doctor Who, he doesn’t seem to have the same intuitive understanding of childhood that Steven Moffat does. Everett is no Amelia Pond, praying for someone to save her from the crack in her wall that’s eaten up her parents.

Instead, Everett is a superhero. The scope of his abilities and knowledge was frankly unbelievable. Everett is a greater physics genius than his father’s graduate students. He knows the history of his own world in stunning detail; he knows the names for parts of architecture and can understand the obscure slang spoken by the Airish population with nary a blink. Many of these abilities arise when narratively necessary with little foreshadowing. Conveniently, we’re told that Everett can see in four, five, or six dimensions (at exactly the moment when he needs to do so, of course); he’s also suddenly a master chef, just when he needs to be one. He does not have any outward (or come to think of it, inward) flaws–and certainly not the flaws of a normal, real, vital fourteen-year-old boy.

Finally, there were a few lines regarding Everett’s race that caused me to wince, though it was largely well-handled. There’s something vaguely odd about a hero of color whose love interest is described as not just white, but preternaturally white (“Everett had never seen skin so pale, eyes so arctic blue. She looked like she was carved from ice” and, later, “he had never seen a face so white, eyes so ice pale”). But worse than this elevation of very traditional Western beauty ideals is the later pronouncement that “if you met [Everett's] dad, you wouldn’t know right away he’s Punjabi, because he’s not big and noisy and he thinks about things” (emphasis added). I mean, eesh.

But these lapses, and the lack of deeper engagement of character, won’t bother many readers–who just want an immersive action-adventure story in a steampunk universe. Planesrunner will, nevertheless, appeal to them–as well as to adult sci-fi fans of McDonald’s work, who probably don’t want pesky adolescent feelings mucking up their science fiction.

Planesrunner is out now. It’s available for preorder from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local indie bookstore.

About the Author


Phoebe North is a twenty-something writer of YA speculative fiction. She lives in New York State with her husband and cat (who may be the most intelligent being in her household). Visit her website at View all posts by Phoebe »

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