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Under the Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy Book 1) Kindle Edition
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This one, I really liked. Set in the Heartland, an analog midwest, where the farming folk now work for the Empyrean, a group of hoity toity rich folk distant from the ordinary folk in the same as as the Capitol from the Hunger Games and hundreds of other young adult dystopian visions. What keeps that from making me roll my eyes though, is Wendig's visceral descriptions and character dynamics, especially for the main character, Cael. Seriously, that line describing someone's eye being destroyed? (shudder) Wonderfully awful.
Also in the tradition of dystopian young adult, we have a contrivance which means that young people have to marry the person selected for them instead of their heart's choice. Those artificial structures are one of my pet peeves with the entire genre, but once again props to Wendig for getting me past that by centering me fully in the emotions of the moment for Cael and his love, Gwennie. The relationships were complex, as real ones are, full of jealousies and sense of duty and attempts to do what is expected intermixed with dreams of getting away.
All in all, quite a good story, and I will probably be back for more in the series.
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.
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.
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