Review: “Blightborn,” Chuck Wendig

Pros: Very tense; the Blight is fascinating
Cons: Stereotypes of various kinds
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Chuck Wendig’s Blightborn (The Heartland Trilogy Book 2) is the sequel to Under the Empyrean Sky. Be sure to read this trilogy in order; there’s a lot of world-building and plot going on. In book one, Cael made some unfortunate discoveries and ended up on the run from the Empyrean, accused of murder, among other things. Gwennie and her family won the Lottery and were shipped off to the flotilla. Cael’s friends, Rigo and Lane, ran off with him, and his parents went off in another direction. Now, Gwennie’s discovering just what it means to be a Heartlander who’s “won” a spot on the flotilla: it’s another life of hard labor, but this time she gets shown around like a circus animal and must pretend to be grateful. She doesn’t even know what’s happened to the rest of her family. Cael, Lane, and Rigo have a very nasty encounter with a Hobo named Eben, then get kidnapped by Raiders who more-or-less take them in. Gwennie crosses paths with Merelda at a party, and Merelda seems to be the mistress of this flotilla’s top law enforcement officer. Meanwhile, the folks they’ve left behind–Boyland, Wanda, and Rigo’s father–get tasked with finding and bringing in Cael and his accomplices. There’s a larger plan afoot, though, and only the Raiders know what it is.

Cael has the Blight, and is starting to hear a voice in his head. I’m so glad we get to see more of the Blight in this volume–it’s creepy, horrific, and fascinating. Not all of our questions about it will be answered, but we do get to meet the Maize Witch and see more of what the Blight is capable of.

The love interests in this volume are getting awfully complicated. Gwennie was with Cael, then she was Obligated to Boyland, and now there might or might not be some sort of attraction between her and Balastair Harrington, the Empyrean who’s in charge of her. (But he kinda still has a thing for Cleo, his old fiancee, who is shacked up with a rival of Balastair’s, but maybe is moving on?) Wanda still wants to be with Cael. Boyland wants to be with Gwennie. Cael wants to be with Gwennie… but is he starting to have feelings for Wanda? Merelda believes she’s in love with the man she’s mistress to, but he’s quite satisfied with his marriage the way it is. Or does he love her after all? And as for Lane… well, poor Lane. Relationships don’t seem to work out so well for him.

For the most part, the Empyreans are every stereotype of the ruling society lording it over the dystopian wasteland. They’re catty, they’re political, they adore parties and luxuries, they enjoy making others miserable, and so on. They even treat people on the equivalent of death row as a tourist attraction. Luckily there are a few individuals (such as Balastair) who break the mold, otherwise it would be a bit much. The fact that only the Empyrean is okay with same-sex or otherwise non-standard relationships is unfortunate; if it weren’t for one sympathetic gay character on the Heartland side, that would seem to send the message that those relationships were the product of a decadent and dissolute society. If the Empyreans had been depicted as less one-sidedly, well, sinful frankly, I wouldn’t even be noting that as a problem (this is why I don’t like monolithic societies–they tend to create ‘problematic’ traps).

We do get to find out more about Cael’s Pop’s history, which is excellent. Little dribs and drabs of his background come out, particularly when the Raiders and Eben show up. I’m not wholly pleased with how Gwennie starts out–she’s supposed to be the level-headed figure in Cael’s crowd, but she immediately jumps to the conclusion upon seeing Merelda that Merelda is a traitor to the Heartland. This leads directly to a continuation of the theme from the previous book, where it seems like young women cannot be friends with or even just rely upon each other.

The level of tension and action in here is delightful! I was pulled in quite quickly by Cael, Lane, and Rigo’s flight from their home, their encounter with Eben, the Raiders, Boyland and Wanda’s tracking of the boys, and so much more. There are some fantastic battles and encounters toward the end. The plot is enthralling as Cael works to save Gwennie, Merelda tries to save herself, Gwennie tries to save her family, and the Maize Witch… well, she has her own goals. Despite the things that didn’t entirely sit well with me, I’m still looking forward to reading the final book in the series.

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