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BOOK REVIEW: Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

REVIEW SUMMARY:The third novel in the Everness series continues to expand both the universe and its protagonists and antagonists alike.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Everett, Sen and the rest of the crew of the airship make a jump to a BDO (Big Dumb Object) inhabited by descendants of dinosaurs.

PROS: A BDO of engineering larger than a Ringworld! Good character development of both the protagonists and antagonists.
CONS: Perhaps a bit too brief in length, especially given the size of the locales and the amount of material covered.
BOTTOM LINE: The third novel in MacDonald’s series starts taking off the gloves and kicking things into high gear.

I’ve a big fan of Ian McDonald’s Everness series, which began with Planesrunner and Be My Enemy. I’ve avidly followed story of a teenage genius who unlocks his father’s most prized secret — the secret not only to visit the ten worlds of the Plentitude, but the entire multiverse. The series follows Everett’s quest to find his missing father, lost somewhere in that multiverse, and the efforts of those who follow Everett in order to capture the Infundibulum for themselves. In the third novel in this series, Empress of the Sun, the story follows (in separate plotlines) Everett (still with the crew of The Everness, the airship he encountered in Planesrunner), Everett’s double from another world of the Plentitude who was recruited to find him, and Charlotte Villers (the main antagonist of the series).

The main plot line of Empress of the Sun shows Everett and the crew of the Everness after a bad jump sends it to a universe where descendants of the dinosaurs built an Alderson Disc. Much larger than Larry Niven’s more well-known Ringworld, it is a testament to the technological power and the dangers posed by its creators, the Jiju. The Jiju are as dangerous and independent as Niven-style Protectors, and the crew’s dealings with them are always fraught with danger and excellently described.

The B-plot of the novel focuses on Everett’s double, who was introduced in the second novel, Be My Enemy. Living in Everett’s timeline and posing as him, his quest to out-do Everett is sidelined by the threat of the Nahn seeking to break loose into this world. There are some fine action pieces as readers see the tech-enhanced Everett face a threat that could consume the entire planet. Even more dangerous to this Everett than the nanotech-like Nahn, though, are the rigors of high school.

If that wasn’t enough, a C-plot of the novel focuses on antagonist Charlotte Villers. Opposing Everett and trying to catch him at every turn, her reaction at discovering where Everett has gone kicks her character into overdrive. We get to see her as a political creature, with a sharp-but-understandable viewpoint, as she deals with the perceived threat. We also get to see how her relations with her fellow council members of the Plenitude. As opposed to the more physical action of the Everness gang and Everett’s double, Charlotte’s action sequences are in the social combat arena.

Beyond the plotting and the action sequences, character development shines in this novel. Three novels in and the author still continues to develop and grow his protagonists. The relationships between Everett and Sen, and between Everett and the rest of the crew of the Everness, for example, are well done. He’s part of their family, and we see the consequences of that in the form of jealousy, insecurity, fear, and the need to pull together when danger arises.

Everett’s double, too, gets a lot of character development, and more than a little sympathy in his own plot line. readers come to know Everett double by watching him live Everett’s life. They see how he is very unlike Everett, and also how much the resemble each other. Adding to his character are his conflict with the Nahn, his dating life, and how he fits in with Everett’s schoolmates. He wasn’t fleshed out that well in the second novel, but Empress of the Sun fixes that quite nicely.

Finally, Ian McDonald manages to evoke sympathy not only for Everett’s double, but — even more surprisingly — for the main antagonist of the series, Charlotte Villers. After revelations in Empress of the Sun, her status as a faceless and remorseless antagonist has been chipped away, revealing an opponent whose motivations and goals are now much more sympathetic.

With strong characters covering all ages and genders, fine action sequences, and enough cool SF concepts that could fill a volume twice its size, Empress of the Sun is an excellent entry in one of my favorite SF series. Like the practiced rider of a ten-speed bike, McDonald’s handling of the the series is climbing up the gears and hitting its speed in strength.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

4 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

  1. Great review, Paul. Love these books.

    PS Tiny little nitpick — her last name is Villiers, not Villers.

  2. I have finished this series (so far) and would recommend it too. Really brilliant, imaginative books and not just for young adults.

  3. Why do they consider these books YA? I never understood that classification. Magician:Apprentice for example isn’t consider YA. Many fantasy books aren’t. But, their seems to be this label/genre of YA books, and I can’t figure out for the life of me whey they are.

    This series intrigues me, but, I always steered away because of that label…

    • The classical definition I’ve seen of YA is that it’s fiction that features a young adult going through some rite of passage into adulthood. Whether that definition still holds today, with more and more authors flocking to the genre and more books being marketed as YA is another question. Either way…don’t sell yourself short by dismissing YA out-of-hand…there are plenty of YA-braded books that adults will like, too.

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