Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Release Day Review: Under the Empyrean Sky - Chuck Wendig

Under the Empyrean Sky
Chuck Wendig 
Series: The Heartland Trilogy, #1
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopian
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Word Rating: Weird.
On Goodreads

I picked up an uncorrected proof of Under the Empyrean Sky, which I tend to call The Corn Book, at BookExpo America back in June, and finally got around to reading it now. The description on the back cover looked interesting enough, but I didn’t quite know what to expect with this.

If I had to sum up The Corn Book in one word, it would be weird.

Under the Empyrean Sky was undoubtedly weird. It was strange. It was odd. But that does not mean it was bad.

The beginning of the book threw me off a bit, and I definitely didn't think I’d like it judging from the first chunk of the book. The diction and description was rough and he used very odd phrasing. For example, he described the corn stalks as “pregnant with cobs” and the sails of his ship as “pregnant with wind.”
Or, at one point, he writes 
“He’s got vision like a hawk. Or an owl. Or some kind of hawk-owl hybrid that the Empyrean scientists are probably working on for shits and giggles.”
Even the more well-described parts are strange. This one description sounds like the boat is being turned on and the readers are walking in when they aren’t supposed to.
“Cael feels Betty’s belly vibrate . The sound of the hissing corn is lost beneath the grinding of gears as his brand-new hover-panels tilt down and back—
A coruscating ripple of light bursts from beneath Betty, and she suddenly leaps forth like a horse with a nettle screwed hard in its ass”
I’m not sure whether the diction improved or whether I just got used to it, but I see where Chuck Wendig was going with it – even though it’s third person, it is being told from the point of view of a 17 year old boy.

Speaking of said 17 year old boy, Cael, I should mention that I really didn’t like him. In fact, I didn’t really form a connection with any of the characters. There were Lane and Rigo, his partners, and Gwennie, his lover and first mate. There was Wanda, his Obliged (I’ll get to that in a minute), and Boyland, his arch-nemesis. Anyway, the characters just seemed to fall flat to me. Again, the effort was there, but it just fell short. Cael was the most developed, and even though I strongly disliked him as a person – he was self-absorbed, irrational, and very immature – I was glad that I could form some sort of opinion. I also really liked Gwennie, and how she was so aloof and dynamic. The rest of them just didn’t feel completely there to me. When I read about characters that are developed and in-depth, I forget that they are fictional characters. With these characters, throughout my whole reading of the book, I was reminded of the fact that I was doing just that – reading a book. I knew Lane and Rigo were good at their jobs, but not much about their personalities. I knew Wanda tried being really nice to everyone, but was often irritating. I knew basic facts but nothing about who they really are.

Anyway, so the beginning of this book was filled with odd language and flat characters and I almost did not want to keep reading. But I did, and I finished the book, and here is what I have to say.

It got better.

Once I got into the actual plot and the dynamic of the world that they lived in, this book improved greatly. The general public lives in the Heartland, which is basically a wasteland now. Their jobs are to cultivate corn, but not just any sort of corn. This corn seems to have a mind of its own and it whips and scars those trying to harvest it, and it dominates any other type of crop planted. It’s aggressive and it’s dominant, and had more depth than most of the characters (both literally and figuratively). So what do the Heartlanders do with all this corn? Well, they don’t eat it. It goes straight to the Empyrean, the rich and elite who live above them, up in the sky, and control everything they do.

Cael hates the Empyrean. He hates them with a burning passion. And this hatred is what fuels his need to change something, to go after the Empyrean and improve their lives. (And now we have something called substance. Yay!)

And then he finds the garden. The impossible garden, growing onions and peppers where there should only be wild, savage corn. Oh, this garden is interesting indeed. And it serves as a catalyst for what happens next.

I think now would be an appropriate time to mention one of my favorite parts of the book, and that is Cael’s dream of flying. It was wonderfully constructed, with phrases like
“it drifts and shifts and twitches, leaves whispering against leaves, tassels like reaching hands. The sky above him is a blue so pale it looks as though someone squeezed the color out of it, like a rag sitting too long in the sun, bleached by the light.”
And then the end, which is the best part:
“And it ends with him falling.
Cael falls.
Towards the reaching corn.
The endless corn.
The everything corn.
Cael dies, and with him the dream.”
Cael and flying is a recurring theme throughout this novel and I think this dream accurately portrays a lot of what this book is about.

There were a few more things I thought really made this book interesting. For example, the Obligation ceremony. It happens every year, to all the 17 year olds in the Heartland. They are matched up (I believe randomly) to a member of the opposite gender. The next year is their engagement period in which they get to know one another. The year after that starts their marriage. They have no choice in the matter and are paired with who the Empyrean chooses, whether they like it or not. And with Cael and Gwennie being lovers, they most definitely do not like this system. Cael ends up being Obliged to Wanda, the aforementioned girl who is irritatingly peppy. Gwennie, however, gets Obliged to Boyland, Cael’s competitor and enemy. (This is when things got fun.) I really liked the way Wendig portrayed this ceremony, and the fact that is existed at all. It showed just how controlled their lives are, and shined a little more light on the nature of their government.

The next thing I really liked was the Blight. The Blight was a disease found in the Heartland, and the description of it chilled me to the bone.
“It’s the tumors, in part. Her whole body is covered with them, and they lie against at atop one another like tar paper shingles on an uneven roof. They remind Cael of calves’ livers. A heaping mess of them. They’re heavy – a burden on skin, muscle, and bone. Because of them, her arms and legs and back have all atrophied. She cannot stand; she can’t even sit up.”
I should mention, the she in this passage is Cael’s mother. Yeah.

Again, this disease that is taking over so many of the citizens of the Heartland that it’s commonplace to see, just adds another element of desperation to their situation.

Overall, 3.5 stars for a great plot that definitely got interesting as I went on, but a slow and mediocre beginning, and sub-par characters (except Gwennie, Gwennie is A+) .

- Noor

How would you deal with an all-controlling government?
Let us know in the comments!

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