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Under the Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy Book 1) Kindle Edition
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|Length: 370 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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Top Customer Reviews
UNDER THE EMPYREAN SKY is a sci-fi Dust Bowl story without the dust. Chuck Wendig's version of a futuristic Oklahoma isn't ravaged by drought or wind or New Deal farm policies, but by an aggressive, corrupting strain of corn called "Hiram's Golden Prolific" that has supplanted every other growing thing except people and rats, and the people aren't doing so well.
Unlike Steinbeck's Okies, the Heartlanders of Wendig's tale don't have a California they can pack up and go to. The only escape is to the flotilla of space stations overhead, which can only be reached by a rigged "Lottery" - or, as is implied, through other, less savory means.
UNDER THE EMPYREAN SKY goes to great lengths to highlight both the scrappy-underdog nature of his main characters, and to make the mysterious residents of the space flotilla as unsympathetic as possible. (They've banned baseball, the scoundrels have.) The storytelling hits you over the head maybe once too often--and that's not a metaphor; almost all the plot twists seem to involve a massive cranial injury to the protagonist's skull.
Having said that, Wendig's lean and unsparing prose is perfectly suited to the material. His creative vision is marked with the sensibility of someone who has been poor, who has had to save junky old parts for jury-rigged repairs, who has had to worry about where their next meal is coming from. The Heartland always feels like a real place, although one on the verge of social collapse. Many of Wendig's characters seem like stock characters, but he writes about them with furious fellow-feeling, miles away from the detachment of the Empyreans, who see them as Steinbeck's working-class Americans see their Okie neighbors.
UNDER THE EMPYREAN SKY was, the author tells us, written as something of a joke--having corn as the leading factor in an apocalypse, instead of fire, ice, or marauding eighty-foot clones of the Michelin Man. It is a bit heavy-handed in its politics, and more than a bit unsubtle in its plot and characterization, but it's entertaining, imaginative stuff.
I read recently that Wendig considers himself a horror writer. I don't know if I would say that for all his work, although some definitely has a creepy aspect. This dystopian tale perhaps walks a line that comes close to horror, with its not-quite-sentient-but-certainly-aware engineered corn, and the Blight, a disease that turns people into almost plants. It's quite an interesting concept, and touches on many of today's controversial issues in both climate and food production. And it paints a somewhat scary picture. But not one without hope. That sliver of light does exist to push Cael and his friends on, even when they don't realize it.
The plot moves quickly once it gets going. It is a bit slow at the front end, but once the story is set-up, it gains momentum. Characters are well written, if not exceptional. The setting is the star here, at least for me. The Heartland is bleak and unfriendly. The people who are little more than forced labor for the Empyrean rulers are hard and tough. Most have a fatalistic attitude about everything. The Empyrean flotillas are like distant stars- too far to touch, a dream of wealth and power that most on the ground can never achieve. There is some mention of sex, but nothing explicit. The books are aimed at older teenagers, so that is not unexpected. There is also a fair bit of cursing, but, again, teenagers do curse, and, if you have read any of Wendig's other books, the language should not be a surprise.
All in all, this was a good read and sets up the next book nicely.
That said, YA doesn't need to be subtle. It's very clear how and where Wendig has taken the future events, and it is, as it should be, a story about the characters. Wendig gets a lot of grief about the teen leads who cuss fluently, have sex, smoke and drink illicitly, etc. Do the grief-givers *remember* being teens? And rural teens, at that? The teens-who-acted-like-it are what sold this book for me, with a prose style well pitched to both the audience and the tone of the story.
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