Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It’s the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow? And the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables, trying to earn much-needed ace notes for their families. But Cael’s tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He’s sick of the mayor’s son besting Cael’s crew in the scavenging game. And he’s worried about losing Gwennie? his first mate and the love of his life? forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry? angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn’t seem upset about any of it. Cael’s ready to make his own luck . . . even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.
Thoughts: Under the Empyrean Sky is a book unlike any other that I’ve read. Wendig takes the typical Monsanto argument to interesting extremes and creates a world filled with corn, miles after miles of the stuff, which is about the only thing that will apparently grow on its own now since most people only have access to terminator seeds, which are designed to only allow for one planting. The corn’s not even good for eating, only being used for processing into things like fuel. It’s ways like these that the Empyrean, ruling from their floating cities in the sky, keep those of the Heartland under their thumbs.
In the Heartland is Cael, a dissatisfied teenager who finds the few things he wanted in life being forever out of reach. His sister has run away. The girl he likes is betrothed to the guy he hates. His mother is dying, and his father doesn’t seem concerned with the fact that life in the Heartland is a truly terrible place. But a chance discovery of a hidden garden of vegetables in the sea of corn, vegetables that are growing on their own and are not twisted by rot or being destroyed by approaching corn, sets things in motion that utterly uproots life for him nd everyone he holds dear.
For anyone who’s read Chuck Wendig’s blog or Twitter feed, it’s not surprising to see this book peppered with swear words. Not surprising, but still a happy find, since anyone who’s spent any time around teenagers (or even being a teenager) knows full-well that most teens curse a lot more than media presentations would have one believe. It’s something that I can overlook in most of the novels I read, since after all, I’m reading for the story and not in the search for an utterly real representation of the speech patterns of 16-year-olds, but when I do come across something that lets loose with a little foul language, it highlights how much others don’t do this, and becomes a stand-out example amongst the crowd.
Plenty of violence, too, when things really get going. Fight scenes are quite common, ranging from people punching each other in the face to Cael using a slingshot and ball-bearing to collapse someone’s trachea and kill them. It’s a brutal life, gritty and short and violent. There’s alcohol consumption. There’s domestic abuse. There’s death and destruction. It’s not a ‘nice’ novel and nor is it meant to be. It’s meant to show to the harsh realities of life in a world where the lower-class Heartlanders are struggling to survive and failing. It’s not a world that thrives on niceties.
While most of the story is told from Cael’s perspective, we do get to jump into the heads of other characters as the story goes on, providing a larger look at the events and world that Wendig has created. it’s a very diverse cast of characters in terms of personality, though not so much in terms of gender representation There are almost as many female characters as male characters, even if the balance is skewed towards males, but it’s pretty much only the males of the book who get real development as the story goes on. The only 5 women and girls I can think of right now are Cael’s mostly-absent sister, Cael’s dying mother, Cael’s romantic interest, Cael’s betrothed, and the villain. Not exactly the best sampling I’ve ever seen, and most of them are largely defined by their relation to Cael rather than as stand-alone characters in their own right. Gwennie gets more development than any of the others, but even that development centres mostly around her relationship to Cael and Boyland.
But the characters we do get to see are nicely varied, and none of them are shining perfect examples of heroes, either, which is a blessing. They’re all wonderfully unique, with different backgrounds, different motivations, different prejudices, and it was great to get inside their heads for a little while, to see this twisted world filled with semi-sentient corn through various eyes. Wendig has a real flair for perspective, and this relatively quick read got me hungry for other stories that he has to tell.
If you’re looking for something that isn’t your typical YA SFF novel, then this is a good bet. The writing flows smoothly, the story’s easily to follow and very engaging, with characters that feel real enough that they could easily be people who live down the street from you (assuming their house is filled with aggressive corn…). It’s a set-up to what suspect with end up bigger and more complex as the trilogy goes on, and happily so, because there’s a lot of potential for growth here and I want to see certain things explored further.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)