Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald – A review

The series that started with ‘Planesrunner’ and continued with ‘Be My Enemy’ continues at a rollicking pace with the third novel ‘Empress of the Sun’. It would not be wise to treat it as a stand alone novel; it hangs upon, and draws on, the events in the previous two books, so leaping in mid series is not advised. That said, going back to read the first two books is hardly a task to be avoided, but an initiation to enjoy.
A young adult novel that brings together alternate universes, steam-punk, lizard queens and a massive feat of space engineering needs a sure hand at the wheel, and thankfully, in Ian McDonald, it gets one. Ian is not afraid to give his characters and ideas time to gel together, making ‘Empress of the Sun’ a satisfyingly chunky read.
The book picks up the twin tales of two teenage boys, Everett Singh and his alter Everett M Singh, an almost identical boy from an alternate Earth. Everett Singh is the son of a physicist who, having discovered how to travel between different universes, has been exiled by those who are threatened by his invention, and want it for themselves. That invention, the Infundibulum, has been downloaded onto Everett’s iPad and launched him (and the crew of the airship ‘Everness’) into the many adventures that are documented in the series. The alter, Everett M, has been engineered and blackmailed to fight against Everett. The boys are physically identical enough that Everett M fits convincingly into Everett’s world, where he spends the duration of the book. He shows himself to be, like his alter, a strong and inventive teenager who survives challenges from several quarters, growing and maturing in the process. The story follows three main characters – the two Everetts, and the ruthless Charlotte Villiers, a power hungry steam-punk villain from another alternate Earth. McDonald handles the multiple viewpoints well, making Villiers’ actions understandable whilst keeping her character an unsympathetic one.
Although the book is populated by a variety of interesting characters, the show is almost stolen by the landscape and setting of the world into which Everett and his friends crash at the start of the book. It is a richly drawn and fantastic world, utterly unlike any of the Earths that we have previously seen in this series, and its evolutionary history has led to a precariously balanced civilisation that is on the edge of extinction. The addition of Everett and his friends from the Everness to the volatile mix brings about a situation that threatens the whole of humanity.
The paths of the two boys take an interesting turn, initially we are presented with the idea that Everett Singh is the hero, and Everett M the villain, but as the story progresses, both boys are changed by their experiences, and we are challenged to reconsider our ideas.
The adventures in the book are brought to a satisfying close, but we know that the main story arc still has a lot of potential, and at the end of the book we get an intriguing taster for the fourth book in the series.
Empress of the Sun is out now, published by Jo Fletcher Books.

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