Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig
Genre: Young adult science fiction/dystopian
Publisher: Amazon Children’s Publishing /Skyscape
Release date: July 30 2013
Source: e-ARC from publisher via NetGalley
In a word: A unique farmland world ruled by corn, edgy characters that will surprise you with their emotional lives, a couple of big secrets and a couple of things worth fighting for. And did I mention the corn is alive? Jeezum Crow!
Heartbreak is a powerful thing in the Heartland, sharp as corn sickle, mean as a twister.
I was so eager to read this book, after falling madly for The Blue Blazes. And I was eager to see how Wendig handled young adult fiction, as his adult fiction is full of swearing and drugs and, well, other adult stuff. And I was not disappointed. Under the Empyrean Sky was an unusual story that almost had the feel of a story set in the 1950s, despite clearly being science fiction. The main characters are a group of teen boys who lead hardscrabble lives, trying to survive in a harsh environment where corn is the only crop allowed and life is miserable all around. But what makes these boys special, and by extension this story special, is the bond they’ve formed with each other. In many ways this was a good old-fashioned adventure story about protecting the little in life that you own and keeping those you love safe.
Boxelder is a small dusty town in the Heartland, where the genetically modified corn known as Hiram’s Golden Prolific grows wherever it wants to. Automated harvesters called motorvators pick the corn, but the residents of Boxelder don’t get to eat it. The corn is shipped off to be turned into things like plastic, fuel and food additives, so the townspeople survive on whatever else they can get their hands on, including the shuck rats that live among the corn stalks. The towns of the Heartland are ruled by the Empyrean, well-to-do individuals who live above the ground in floating cities called flotillas. They control almost everything the Heartlanders do, but as you might expect, that doesn’t sit well with everyone.
Cael is a seventeen-year-old who captains a scavenger vessel with a rag-tag crew of teens named Rigo, Lane and Gwennie. One day, after a rival crew called the Boxelder Butchers causes their ship to crash, Cael and his crew discover something wonderful: a secret garden full of illegal vegetables—peppers, tomatoes and green beans—which changes their lives in an instant. On a quest to find the source of the garden, Cael and his friends must buck the rules of the Empyrean if they have any hope of making life better for themselves and their families.
There is so much to talk about with this book, I’m not sure where to begin! Let’s start with the world building. In a sea of dystopian novels, Under the Empyrean Sky had some unusual elements that I loved:
- The corn. I was both creeped out and fascinated by the corn, which is so aggressive that it can even take over your body! I loved Wendig’s descriptions of how the sharp leaves and stalks can draw blood if you brush up against them:
Cael wipes blood off his arms and swats away a stalk of corn that has bent down toward him. They say the corn can’t smell blood, but Cael doesn’t buy it.
- The Empyrean flotillas. These floating cities are merely background material in this first book, but I’m sure in the next book we’ll learn more about them and the people who live there.
- The Blight. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say there are some horrible diseases in this story, and the blight is one of the worst.
- Piss–blizzards! This is what the locals call it when a big wind whips up and blows around the pollen on the corn. The resulting blizzard looks like piss, I guess!
- Hover boats, cat–marans and magna-cruxes. Cool floating “ships” that let you whiz through the air. Kind of reminded me of the landspeeder from Star Wars. And yes, they probably run on fuel made from the evil corn.
The characters felt authentic and real to me, and even though they aren’t the nicest people I’ve met in stories (well, actually none of the characters are perfect and many will rub you the wrong way), I was drawn in by their situations and felt for them, no matter how mean they got. Cael in particular is an angry boy whose family situation isn’t the greatest. His mother is dying, her body covered in tumors from the processed food the Empyrean gives them to eat; his father is so caught up in following the Empyrean’s rules that he can’t see what they’ve done to his family; and his sister Merelda has run away from home. For me, Cael was simply a product of his environment. He lives in a harsh world and he has to act a certain way to survive. I loved his weapon of choice—a sling-shot with ball bearing ammunition that he wields with deadly accuracy. But Cael is protective of those he cares about, especially his crew. I also loved Cael’s friend Rigo, abused by his father but a staunch protector and friend to Cael and the rest of the crew.
Even nasty Boyland Jr., Cael’s rival in more ways than one, got to me by the end of the book. Wendig has an emotional moment for everyone at some point, which makes you begin to at least understand, if not like, some of the characters. And by the midpoint of the story, Cael and the others change from bullies to heroes, when they discover that some things in life are important enough to fight for.
Wendig’s dialog is just as good as ever. The quick back-and-forth between the boys is exactly the way I would imagine teen boys talking to each other if they’re stuck in a dusty cornfield chasing rats and trying to find spare harvester parts to sell:
“I don’t want to talk about that anymore,” Cael says. “Because I got a plan.”
Rigo’s eyes light up. “Ooh.”
Lane just frowns and rotates his finger. “Let’s hear it.”
Cael tells them the plan, and the others seem reluctant. But Cael doesn’t want to hear it. “We meet back here tomorrow morning.”
“But tomorrow’s the Lottery,” Rigo says.
Cael cocks an eyebrow. “Fuck the Lottery. We make our own fate.”
“Ballsy,” Lane says. “But hell, I like ballsy. See you tomorrow, Captain.”
All the pent-up tension comes to a head at the end, and the author wraps things up just right to make the reader eager for book two. I truly ended up caring for these characters and their fight against the Empyrean, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Even if it’s full of heartbreak. After all, that’s life in the Heartland.
“Felicity Jenkins is barely a girl. She’s more like a wolverine in a dress.” – Pop
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ from the finished version.
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