Everett Singh has escaped with the Infundibulum from the clutches of Charlotte Villiers and the Order, but at a terrible price. His father is missing, banished to one of the billions of parallel universes of the Panoply of All World, and Everett and the crew of the airship Everness have taken a wild, random Heisenberg Jump to a random parallel plane. Everett is smart and resourceful and from a frozen earth far beyond the Plenitude plans to rescue his family. But the villainous Charlotte Villiers is one step ahead of him.
-synopsis and cover art courtesy of goodreads.
Atmospheric Analysis: The trend of body horror continues on this cover, which is also far sparser than the first novel in this series, Planesrunner. On the plus side, Everett is more clearly a hero of color here. Color and fist guns.
Planetary Class: The Planesrunner series is action adventure in a series of alt-history settings and with a hard-SF sensibility.
Mohs Rating: Despite leaning hard on the hard-SF stylings, most of the science in Be My Enemy is of the phlebotinum type, qualifying it as a 3 on the Mohs scale–physics plus.
Planetary Viability: We’re thrust far afield from the Neo-Victorian setting of the first novel, but the panopoly of parallel worlds remains lively and well-developed.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: McDonald’s prose is masterful, spare, and frequently lovely. It’s easily the strongest aspect of these novels.
Expanded Report: I had mixed feelings about Planesrunner, the very first novel in Ian McDonald’s very first series for adolescent readers. While on paper, it has many admirable qualities–qualities often sought in YA novels, from a diverse hero, to a well-developed SFnal premise–I wasn’t quite convinced of the appropriateness of the book for the intended audience. That remains the case with Be My Enemy, the oddly titled sequel.
What worked well in the first book continues to work well here. McDonald’s prose, particularly in details of place, is undeniably strong. While we lose the rich Neo-Victorian setting of the first novel for much of this second outing, nevertheless lovely passages like the following abound:
All that remained of the day was a glow of red along the west of the world. Everett stood at the center of a web of light, streets and traffic and railways. With the shapes of buildings lost in the deepening darkness, with London reduced to glowing bones, it could be any city, anywhere, any world. (107)
What’s more, McDonald’s science fiction remains conceptually interesting. There’s a lot of cool stuff here from nanotechnology to a fascinating alien invasion which features seeded clone societies on far-flung worlds. This lends Be Me Enemy a heft and sophistication rarely seen in young adult science fiction–much less the middle grade this purportedly is.
However, I admit I remain doubtful about the potential appeal of the Everness series for a middle grade audience. It’s not that Planesrunner and Be My Enemy are too hard–though I can’t imagine that they are books which would grab struggling readers. Instead, it’s mostly a matter of density. Even here, where the plotting is superficially more action-packed than in the first novel, the story feels both simultaneously scattered and packed with an overabundance of scientific jargon. In the specifics, there’s a playfulness about the language, but the overall impact on the story is to bog it down significantly.
This is exacerbated by Everett’s emotional distance from the reader–an effect further amplified by the third-person narration spread across several plotlines. Here, Sen is the character who is truly emotionally engaged in the action. This engagement is mirrored in the emotional plight of Everett M, our Everett’s otherworldly doppelganger, who in one scene rages against his situation. It was a human, sympathetic moment. But Everett himself remains coolly in control of his emotions and his preternatural abilities. In fact, his biggest flaw appears to be excessive pride in himself–a trait that comes up once and never again:
It was not just this London spread at his feet. It was all the Londons, all the worlds. He had mastery of them all. His enemies were many, and they were subtle, powerful, and clever and Everett did not doubt that he had only seen a fraction of what they could achieve, but he had a thing they did not: he had the Infundibulum, the jump gate, and the ability to work them both. He was the Planesrunner. (105)
A confident, competent hero can be heartening, but at times Everett slips from hero to ubermensch. His emotional remove from emotionally trying situations simply felt implausible in a fourteen year old. I would have better believed him to be sixteen, eighteen, or thirty.
There is one tender human moment–resonant, believable–deep in the novel’s final act, in the interactions between Everett and his father’s doppelganger. The heart of this story isn’t Everett’s feelings about Sen, or his mother and sister, but rather the relationship between father and son. I wish it had been featured earlier and expanded upon; it would have provided the action, dense though it was, with a compelling emotional through-line.
I’m aware that my similar criticisms of the first book were unpopular ones. In the tenth months since reading and reviewing that book, my feelings haven’t much changed. In fact, Everett at times feels like a critique of the “emo teenagers” (in Cheryl Morgan’s phrasing) in other YA, particularly when characters like Sen and Everett M are allowed to emote in a more familiar YA manner. That might be fine, even appealing, to the readers who feel that emotionally reserved teens are sorely needed in YA. But these arguments against emotionalism have never quite appealed to my tastes or resonated with my own adolescent experience. Perhaps I’m just not the best reader for these books. Still, I do feel like there’s a compelling emotional argument here, only buried beneath the somewhat plodding action and fairly inaccessible sci-fi conceits.
Who then, might best enjoy these books? McDonald works hard to work in contemporary references for modern teenagers, but the truth is that most of these were phrased in a slightly ham-fisted way–the parlance of adults, not teens. For example, Everett wears a suit “a bit like a plug-suit from the animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion“; he moves like a character “from the video game Assassin’s Creed.” The throat clearing and contextualizing is strange–unnecessary for readers in middle school, but important for adult readers. Nostalgic references to Duran Duran are handled more effortlessly.
(It bears being said that McDonald misses a prime opportunity to reference Pullman’s His Dark Materials series–Everett and Sen traipse around the roofs of Oxford in a scene undoubtedly redolent of the earlier steampunk, universe-crossing trilogy. This isn’t a major complaint, but it would have been nice for McDonald to–in the parlance of tropers, which is also lightly bungled here–hang a lampshade on it.)
Therefore I generally wouldn’t hesitate to recommend both Planesrunner and Be My Enemy to nostalgic readers of adult SF, who want familiar competence and emotional remove in their heroes without the angst of mainstream YA. This dense book–with undoubtedly heroic teens at its core–might also appeal to older readers of young adult who like a good challenge.
Readers who like emo teenagers (myself included) best continue to look elsewhere.