About the Book
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.
I’m going to lay some brutal honesty on you guys.
I had just about no desire to ever read a young adult book written by Chuck Wendig.
I know that’s the rudest thing I’ve ever said, but I’m saying it to give you some context. I’m not a huge fan of young adult books in the first place. However, the thing that really held me back was the fact that I couldn’t picture the mind that created Miriam Black being able to swing into young adult. I thought the book would pay for it, and Wendig is one of my absolute favorite authors and I never really wanted to read a book I was sure I wouldn’t like.
And I’m telling you right now that I was wrong, and I should never have been reluctant to read Under the Empyrean Sky.
Under the Empyrean Sky is an interesting mix of steampunk, scifi, dystopian, and emotional angst. There are a lot of interesting elements in this novel, and Wendig somehow manages to smash them together so they work, rather than make the book feel disjointed and too busy. In fact, the plot is simplified a little bit to make room for the world building and complex elements, but it works.
Most of the book follows the story of Cael, a down on his luck scavenger with some rather tropy feeling enemies, like Boyland Barnes Jr. Cael’s father isn’t much to write about, and his sister makes a brief appearance so I couldn’t really get a pin on her. He has an illicit affair from which springs much angst, which also feels kind of tropey.
And I know that all sounds horrible. Who likes a trope, right, much less so many of them.
However, that’s part of what absolutely enchanted me with Under the Empyrean Sky. It starts out feeling like something you’d expect it to feel like in just about every aspect, and then Wendig slowly adds depth and subtlety to the characters, the world and the plot. Cael stops being the boy who tries too hard, and you start seeing his flaws and the things that make him human and slightly annoying. His father gets the tables turned on him pretty fast, and readers quickly realize he’s not really a deadbeat, or lackluster wallpaper anymore, but someone far more impressive than you expect. Boyland Barnes never really stops being a jerk, but readers will start seeing some of what made him that way, and you’ll start feeling some sympathy. Cael’s romance stops being so romantic, which makes the introduction of the triangular romantic angst more tolerable and far less eye-rollish than I expected.
Yes, Under the Empyrean Sky starts tropey, but what I’m saying is that works, because Wendig quickly takes all of those tropes that ease you into a comfortable tale, and turns them on their heads. The world stops being overwhelmingly dystopian, and Wendig weaves in those elements that makes it truly unique, from some Sci-Fi technology, to the corn that seems to have its own sentient personality, to the Blight, and the social class issues that play a huge role in the novel without being oppressive. The characters aren’t cardboard cutouts of characters I’ve read a hundred times before, but they are complex and multifaceted, with flaws and strengths. They make good choices and dumb ones, and their backgrounds play into who they are and who they are becoming. The conflict is slightly obvious, but it ends on such a note where it’s easy to see how that is going to be just as complex and surprising as everything else.
I should also state that this book is obviously a setup for what comes next in the series, and the ending shows that, while things might go the way you expect, the rest of the series won’t. In fact, the time Wendig took to set up things so intricately in this book will pay off with the rest of the series. He has freed up a lot of time to focus on the characters, the politics, and the mixing and merging of two very different worlds, which really is where all the compelling elements lie.
If you can’t tell, the thing that really delighted me about Under the Empyrean Sky was its masterful execution. Wendig used all of his wiles to present his readers with a book that is easy to warm up to and feel comfortable with. And then he takes it and twists it. Wendig throws you down the rabbit hole, turns the tables and then makes it obvious that whatever you thought this book was, it’s far more complex, layered, and thought provoking than you expected.
I went into this novel expecting to read a delightful little romp about a bunch of angsty teenagers who walk through a lot of corn, and I got something else entirely. Under the Empyrean Sky has incredible world building, fantastic characters, an addicting plot. Furthermore, it’s packed full of thought provoking themes that deal with sexuality, diversity, acceptance, and social class with poise and maturity. This book is the kind of young adult novel that I love, and Wendig is a master craftsman.
Here’s some more honesty for you guys:
I usually simmer about a month between books in a series. It lets me digest, and helps me not get sick of the series (I suffer from that, I hate to admit). I approach each book with fresh eyes when I take a break. I couldn’t do that with this one. I’m already halfway through Blightborn because I just couldn’t let myself stop. That’s something I never, in a million years thought I’d ever say about a young adult book or series.