Edition 12: Book Review: Under The Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig
Reviewed by Damien Smith
Those who are familiar with Chuck Wendig’s blog will know he likes to set some bizarre writing challenges from time to time. A little while back, the challenge was set to come up with a thoroughly bizarre something-punk genre, on the premise that the ‘something’ is what essentially runs that world. For example steampunk and dieselpunk worlds essentially run on steam and diesel respectively.
One of the more quirky results of this was the concept of ‘cornpunk’. What started as a joke developed, after some research into corn and corn derivatives, into a full-length YA novel when the whole world, or at least that bit where the story is set, is run on corn. Thus was Under the Empyrean Sky born; set in the far future where the elite Empyreans waft around on huge flotillas high in the sky and the chronically oppressed drudges work tirelessly to raise a horrid, almost entirely inedible and possibly carnivorous strain of corn to feed the nobility’s demands for fuel, plastics and other corn derivatives.
The corn grows so rampantly, and is so destructive to other vegetation and the soil itself that nothing else can grow, so those poor souls stuck on the ground are entirely dependent on ration drops from above. There is a lesson here somewhere about unfettered use of GM plants.
Our main protagonist Cael McAvoy and his teenage friends run a scavenging crew in their hover-boat, collecting old machinery and anything else they can salvage for profit. There is a reasonably typical supporting cast of villagers, an unpleasant mayor and his son (who, naturally, run the rival scavenger crew), misfits and powerful overlords. Cael and most of his young friends are initially irritating enough—although they grew on me—to probably be easy to identify with for teen readers, unless they are female. There is a distinct lack of any female leads with the possible exceptions of Cael’s love interest Gwennie and the one Empyrean who plays a significant role, which was somewhat disappointing to me and would probably be more disappointing to female readers.
That aside, one of the great strengths of this book is the setting and world-building. Although the root ideas are nothing new—oppressed underclass, elitist jerks sitting up on a cloud somewhere, discovery that there’s more to life than the daily grind etc—Chuck manages to take the thoroughly bizarre concept of cornpunk and create a rich backdrop and overpowering feeling of being ground under the heel of the Empyrean elite, whilst being helpless to do anything about it. Apart from the obvious reliance on hand outs from above, the underclass of the Heartland is rigorously controlled—young adults are obligated/forced to marry–a random partner when they come of age, and any signs of independence or disobedience are clamped down on hard, with the Empyreans beating or executing people and occasionally wiping out entire towns to maintain order.
While the basic elements (except for the corn, of course) are reasonably formulaic, there are enough plot twists, highs, lows, and hooks to make me want to read on in this trilogy. The characters develop and there are some great big questions yet to answer (particularly around the blight that afflicts many poor souls) and I am intrigued about the hinted-at society of the Empyreans. While there are some flaws here, the story as a whole is brilliantly written and paced and I would recommend it to fans of dystopian futures.
Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Skyscape, 2013
Being a writer requires dedication, commitment, devotion, diligence, a skin like an armadillo and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears. By this definition, Damien is most definitely not a writer, although he does occasionally put pen to paper. More accurately, Damien is a lover of the written word in nearly all its forms (you can keep vampire romances) and always feels a little down if he can see over his To Read pile.