Can an author who made his name writing intelligent, near-future sci-fi for adults write a novel that will appeal to children?
If the author is Ian McDonald, and the book is Planesrunner – the first in McDonald's Everness series – the answer is a resounding yes.
Basically, McDonald has taken all the things that kids love – pirates, airships, science-magic, football, Christmas – and turned them into a novel. Planesrunner is relentlessly enjoyable from beginning to end, certainly the most fun of all McDonald's books.
14 year-old Everett Singh is a genius. He can think in more than your bog-standard three dimensions, and his spatial awareness makes him a killer goalie at school. None of makes much difference, however, when his father is very professionally snatched off the street in front of him.
Everett is hopeless, until he receives the Infundibulum – a computer program that reveals to him that the kidnappers have taken his father, Tejendra, into the Plenitude of known worlds: nine Earths, ten counting his, that started the same but diverged at a critical point.
Determined to rescue his father, Everett follows the trail to a world without oil, where everything runs on electricity, massive airships dominate the trade routes and the close-knit, insular crews have their own cant. (There is a Palari dictionary at the back of the book, but it is actually quite easy to decipher as you read.)
Befriended by the extraordinary, unpredictable Airish Sen and hidden on her airship, the Everness, Everett sets out to find his father before the plenipotentiaries of the Plenitude find him.
There seems a good possibility that sci-fi will be the next ‘big thing’ in young adult fiction – splitting off the current Hunger Games and Blood Red Road trend in dystopian fiction. If it is, then McDonald’s Planesrunner is in a strong position to corner a good percentage of the incoming fandom.
Planesrunner is easily commercial in a way that McDonald’s adult novels probably aren't, while at the same delivering the intelligent, plausible sci-fi that he is known for. The world is coherent and adaptable – there are literally thousands of permutations to explore – and Everett makes for an appealing protagonist.
Under McDonald’s expert hand, our protagonist is basically just a nice kid with a big problem. Everett is a genius, but that genius is couched in familiar, understandable terms: Doctor Who, football and non-branded smartphones. It is a relatable sort of genius, not the ‘build a death ray from picked onions and paperclips’ genius of movies and comics.
Nor is Everett the only fully-rounded character here. McDonald has a knack for creating believable characters in only a few lines of text. The exuberant Sen – pilot of the Everness, armed with her deck of hand-made Tarot – is unmissable, fierce, imprudent and as likely to save Everett as he is her.
Then there is the crew of the Everness, the redoubtable Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, the fighting Punjabi-Scot Mchynlyth and the bible-quoting American con-man, Sharkey. They are all interesting, diverting additions to the cast.
The only flaw, if flaw it is, is that the plot zips along so quickly that characters often fall by the wayside. Colette Harte, Pirate Queen of the Quantum Physics Department, surely needs more than 13 pages to do her justice. Still, with a multitude of nearly (but not quite) identical worlds, there is always the chance of meeting them again in the forthcoming books.
Planesrunner is, to borrow a turn of phrase from Sen, ‘fantabulosa bona’. It is intelligent, just the right side of incomprehensible sci-fi, a fast-paced adventure story and a twisty, well-written mystery.
The characters are fun, the world is interesting and McDonald – surely Northern Ireland's most visionary writer – finds a good balance between answering questions and posing others. It is a strong start to what promises to be a riveting series.