It's not as complicated as it sounds, I swear.
Every time someone has asked me about InterWorld, that's how I've ended the description. I've tried six or seven different iterations of a synopsis, but I've not found a way to keep people's eyes from crossing as I talked about alternate realities, multiple dimensions and an army made of different versions of the same person. It's a bloody shame, too, since Gaiman & Reaves have put together a fine story filled with action and abstract thought, science and sorcery. Despite the apparent contradictions, however, the narrative has an eminently readable balance which is not as complicated as it sounds, I swear.
Joey Harker is a sophomore in high school who, aside from a miserable sense of direction, has typical teenage problems. His biggest issue however, goes beyond madcap teachers and unrequited love. Turns out he lives in something called the Altiverse, a universe made of a nearly infinite number of realities. Some lie close to Joey's, with only slight differences (like McDonalds sporting green tartan rather yellow and red), while others are worlds filled with magic or over the top science. In each dimension, there's a Joey Harker, sort of, and each one of them can Walk between worlds. To complicate matters, there are two groups — the magical HEX and the cybernetic Binary — who hunt Walkers and use them as a necrotic power source in their perpetual war for multi-dimensional domination. Caught between the two, the Harkers created Interworld, not to save the universe, but to maintain the balance. When Joey, the narrator, discovers his ability, the game's afoot and his life changes, more than once.
InterWorld could have easily become a convoluted beast of a novel, a piece of hard sci-fi which took itself way too seriously. With deft hands, though, Gaiman & Reaves keep the pace elevated and the techno-jargon down, making their complex universe easily understood, even familiar. Much of this is attributable to the narrator's character. Joey's a pretty solid middle of the road kid. He doesn't get too high or too low, even in his most stressful moments. It's not that he's lacking emotions, it's that they're carefully calibrated to allow him to be the level center of a swirling mass of characters and ideas. This might be best embodied every time Joey actually "Walks."
Picture a fractal. Now spin it into an orb that you can walk through and then chuck in every color and smell you've ever experienced. As near as I can figure, you're half-way to understanding the In-Between. This place, for lack of a better term, is where Walkers go as they pass from one dimension to another. It's "…a 3-D collaboration between Salvador Dali, Picasso and Jackson Pollock. With a liberal does of Hieronymus Bosch and the really cool old Warner Bros. cartoons thrown in for good measure." The madness isn't just visual; Joey says he can hear colors and see tastes. For the reader, it's a license to paint the scenery with the delirium of imagination. As a Walker, though, Joey knows instinctively that his path is the magenta one and his way out lies behind the spinning rhomboid which tastes like C sharp. He's the eye of the storm, the guide through a place which is always threatening to spill over into madness. It's not only his team of commandos he leads, it's the reader as well. Without this guidance, the complexities of the story (in the In-Between, they're called mudluffs, basically whacked-out monsters of the highest order) would be totally overwhelming for everyone.
A few days ago, I was talking to one of my classes about InterWorld and a student said it reminded him of a made-for-TV sci-fi movie. I could see his point. What carries the novel through, however, is the writing. In most co-authored books, the line between one writer and another seems fairly obvious to me (or so I delude myself). Gaiman & Reaves, though, are seamless. There was only one point, the use of a Gaimanesque graphic element, where I saw one author rise above the other. Even that, though, was so perfectly timed it was breathtaking. Ultimately, the book is crafted of honest, intelligent storytelling which is simply fun to read. Plus, it has a totally delightful ending which was so like the last scene of the Incredibles, I heard the soundtrack. And like the movie, it seems primed for a sequel which hope never to see.