If you've been hanging around these parts for some time, you are aware that I love Ian McDonald. He is one of my favorite science fiction authors, and to this day, River of Gods, Brasyl, and The Dervish House continue to rank among my favorite science fiction reads of all time. You may also recall my disappointment when it was announced that McDonald's next project would be aimed at the YA market.
And though I gave Planesrunner a shot with a certain measure of reticence, McDonald's first YA work impressed me. The plot did not show as much depth and the storylines were not as multilayered and convoluted as is usually his wont, yet I found McDonald's Planesrunner and its sequel, Be My Enemy, to be intelligent, entertaining, and fast-paced novels.
And since I read Planesrunner during a trip to Belize and Be My Enemy during a trip to Mexico, it felt natural to pack this one in my suitcase for this Southeast Asian adventure.
This third volume, Empress of the Sun, follows much in the same vein. I'm happy to report that the book moves the plot forward as much as in the first installment, which is an improvement from Be My Enemy. Like its predecessors, this one is another entertaining novel which contains all the key ingredients that made the first two installments such fun reads. Problem is, I'm not sure it's enough anymore. Given that Ian McDonald can raise the roof and bring the house down, I doubt that these books, as fun as they are to read, can continue to satisfy the author's adult readership for a prolonged period of time. At the top of his game, few science fiction writers can match Ian McDonald. Hence, I have to admit that I'm longing for something bigger, something more complex, something thought-provoking from McDonald. And I'm hoping that his next work will be reminiscent of River of Gods and The Dervish House, something aimed at his adult fans. After writing three YA novels in a row, I feel that the genre is starting to miss the Ian McDonald whose works have been nominated for basically every major SFF awards out there. . .
Here's the blurb:
The airship Everness makes a Heisenberg Jump to an alternate Earth unlike any her crew has ever seen. Everett, Sen, and the crew find themselves above a plain that goes on forever in every direction without any horizon. There they find an Alderson Disc, an astronomical megastructure of incredibly strong material reaching from the orbit of Mercury to the orbit of Jupiter. Then they meet the Jiju, the dominant species on a plane where the dinosaurs didn't die out. They evolved, diversified, and have a twenty-five million year technology head-start on humanity. War between their kingdoms is inevitable, total and terrible. Everness has jumped right into the midst of a faction fight between rival nations, the Fabreen and Dityu empires. The airship is attacked, but then defended by the forces of the Fabreen, who offers theEvernesscrew protection. But what is the true motive behind Empress Aswiu's aid? What is her price? The crew of the Everness is divided in a very alien world, a world fast approaching the point of apocalypse.
The multiverse theory is one of the oldest science fiction tropes, one that some believe may have been done ad nauseam. Still, I found McDonald's approach, with such concepts as the Plenitude of Known Worlds and the Heisenberg Gates, to be sort of fresh and interesting. As was the case for Tad Williams in his Otherland series, it gives McDonald basically carte blanche to, at least where worldbuilding is concerned, go wherever his fertile imagination takes him. In Empress of the Sun, the author introduces the Jiju, dinosaurs who have evolved for millions of years and whose intelligence and technology are far beyond what humanity can encompass. As a race, they are reminiscent of Steven Erikson's K'Chain Che'Malle.
Again in this third volume, though very fluid McDonald's prose is evocative and every world and locale come alive as you read along. I particularly enjoyed how he portrayed the Jiju's Alderson Disc, the Worldwheel. What we learn about the Jiju is pretty much limited to what is revealed by Kax, which I found a bit disappointing. When you introduce such a cool race as those futuristic dinosaurs, a bit more information about their history and society would have been welcome. But this is YA literature and things need to keep moving fast, so. . .
Characterization remains what is probably the strongest facet of this novel. Once more, Everett Singh must share the spotlight with his double from Earth 4, Everett M Singh, and there is a nice balance between the two POVs. There are a number of other points of view, most notably those of Sen and Charlotte Villiers. The disparate cast of protagonists allows us to witness events unfold through the eyes various characters, which makes for enjoyable reading.
The pace continues to be fast from start to finish, something that doesn't always work for the best. I'm aware that the low pagecount and crisp pace are important aspects of YA novels. But I felt that we didn't get to know enough about the Jiju and the ending was decidedly rushed, which ultimately robs it of any emotional impact it was meant to have on everyone involved.
In the end, Empress of the Sun is nowhere near as awesome as the mind-blowing science fiction yarns Ian McDonald is renowned for. Still, like its two predecessors, it's a fun, entertaining, and gradually more complex work featuring an engaging cast of characters. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Writing for a younger audience imbues McDonald's writing with a certain exuberance that I find intoxicating. And yet, for all that they are fun reads, as a huge fan of McDonald's award-nominated and award-winning works, I'm afraid that the series might be losing steam as far as the author's adult readership is concerned. Knowing just how special and prolific McDonald is, I'm not sure that the Everness series, trapped under the yoke of the YA market demands, can continue to fully satisfy some adult readers. Time will tell. . .