Review: “Under the Empyrean Sky,” Chuck Wendig

Pros: Fascinating world-building
Cons: My pet peeve cliche is back; shallow characters; some logic holes
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy Book 1) is a fascinating exercise in dystopian world-building. In the Heartland, everyone grows genetically engineered corn. It’s used for pretty much everything besides eating, and it’s what the Empyreans in the flotilla that floats high above want the Heartlanders to grow, so that’s what they grow. The Heartlanders live a hardscrabble life. They don’t even get to choose who they marry or much of what they eat (they’re issued most provisions by the Empyrean). Once a year there’s a harvest festival at which “Obligations” are announced (which of that year’s crop of 17-year-olds will marry whom), the Lottery is run (one family is taken up to live as Empyreans on the flotilla), and people get drunk and have a good time. This year, Cael’s younger sister has run away from home, something the Empyrean must not find out has happened. Cael is a scavenger, but his ship was destroyed by his rival, the mayor’s son. And both Cael and his beloved Gwennie are going to get matched to other people at the harvest festival. Something has to break–it’s just a matter of what will set off the growing discontent among Cael and his friends.

As you can see, I spent more of the intro describing the world than describing the characters involved in the story. Frankly, that’s because the world is more interesting and, by and large, I cared more about it. I did care enough to want Cael to succeed for the most part, but his relationship with Gwennie didn’t have a lot of chemistry, and his rival, the mayor’s son, made me shrug. There are definitely some one-dimensional characters here, such as the lawman who hates Cael and would go to nearly any lengths to humiliate and harm him.

There is one character aspect that annoyed me: I have a particular pet peeve when it comes to certain authors’ depictions of relationships between girls and women of similar age. There’s this one stereotype where two women of a similar age are rivals in some way, can’t trust one another, and the “bad” one may even try to kill the “good” one over (what else?) a maaaan. This often shows up in books where there are no other depictions of young women being able to trust or rely on each other–no positive depictions of female/female friendships–and the only characters the women can rely on are men. (No, I’m not saying Chuck is sexist. But I am saying this one stereotype is, and I hope he’ll avoid it in future. See this rant if you want to continue that discussion.)

The corn is fairly disturbing. It has razor-sharp leaves, and seems to be vaguely quasi-sentient, not to mention hugely invasive. There’s also an implication that it may be responsible for the cancers that so many people have, and/or the “Blight”–in which people start turning into part-plant creatures. I really want to see more of this.

There are some little logical inconsistencies here and there. It’s time for the harvest festival, yet there are storms of corn pollen (“piss-blizzards”)? Umm, the season for pollen is really not when harvest occurs. I guess magically somehow there are identical numbers of girls and boys at age 17 to be paired off, since this seems to be the case for the current group and there’s no mention of what happens when it isn’t the case. If the mayor hates Cael’s Pop so much, has since years ago, and Cael’s Pop once did some stuff the Empyreans would consider shady, then why didn’t he turn him in? How does Cael’s sister end up where she does? It’s glossed over so heavily that it’s hard to imagine circumstances–given the world-building–under which it could occur.

This is an interesting world and I think I’ll go ahead and read book two in the trilogy, but I hope things pick up a bit.

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