Title: Under the Empyrean Sky
Author: Chuck Wendig
Series? Yes, 1 of 3.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley + Skyscape in exchange for an honest review.
I had such a hard time writing this review, as this book fell victim to my dystopia burnout (I thought Red Rising cured me, oops). I really wanted to like this book because i) I like reading the author’s blog and ii) these covers are freaking amazing (yes, judge away!). Alas, I didn’t love or hate it – I felt plain meh.
The setting was my favourite part of this book. Set in a futuristic world where mutant corn have taken over the Earth and is the only crop the people of the Heartland can sow. Above them lives the Empyrean in their floatilla, who has access to luxuries and rigorously control the planting of crops and the distribution of wealth. It reminded me a bit of Interstellar, one of my favourite movies last year, where the Earth could only sustain okra and corn.
As with all dystopia, we get to see elements of the oppressor and the oppressed. Heartlanders live in poverty under the Empyrean sky (points for using the title!). Not only are they starving and malnourished, many of their kinds also suffer from an advanced form of cancer, hinted as a side effect from consumption of genetically modified corn. There’s also the Blight, a creepy mutation that reminds me a little of The Wood’s effect in Uprooted.
While I thought that the book had quite a solid setting, I could not wholly get into it. As mentioned, I’ve seen similar elements in other media I’ve consumed. This is no fault of the book, as it came out before both Interstellar and Uprooted – it’s a problem with me for failing to be completely objective.
The main character of this trilogy is Cael, a disillusioned teen living in the Heartland. He captains a salvage crew, traveling around the Heartland with his crewmate to find bits and bobs to sell. They stumble on a garden growing fresh, but illegal vegetables and that’s when the plot starts taking off.
I found Cael hard to relate too, another thing that left me cold about the book. He’s all blustery bravado and act on instinct rather than out of thought – the opposite of me, basically. His internal conflict, especially in regards to his love for Gwennie, was something I struggled to empathise with. For a guy that’s meant to love her, he treats her kind of terribly? I also found his friends a bit hard to differentiate, oops. There are points in this book where the narration changes POV and I didn’t even notice because they sounded pretty much the same to me, that’s always a bad sign – especially because in general I adore multiple narrative.
I would have also love to see more female characters doing stuff in these books. Gwennie has little agency and is sidelined to a love interest. Cael treats his betrothed quite poorly, but she’s barely a character. I would love to have seen more of Cael’s rebellious, free-spirited sister – but she disappeared 10% into the book… there’s hopes that she will feature more prominently in the sequel, though.
The pacing was a little bit off for this book, I understand that it’s only the first book in the trilogy – but I feel that nothing happens for the first half or so. Then towards the last 20%, the plot reached breakneck speed and shit got real very abruptly.
I felt that the entire book was set up for the rest of the trilogy, leaving a lot more questions than answers – I felt a little unfulfilled. For example, the teenagers in the Heartland have to be Obligated at 17, destined to permanently mate with a chosen member of the opposite sex. Why? No explanation. Also, once a year, a family from the Heartland wins the lottery to be taken to live on the floatilla. Why? Also no explanation. I understand these things are being saved for the next book- but I sorta want to see the first book in the trilogy to do some legwork to keep me as a reader, ya know?
I can really get behind the themes and messages that this book is trying to send. Dystopia should be all about making social commentary, and this book highlight the dangers of GMO, monopoly on food resources, and all those good environmental messages. However, despite my intentions, I just couldn’t really connect with the story or characters. I think I’ll be swearing off dystopia for another couple of months. If you’re looking for another interesting take on dystopia, I think you’ll like this one more than I did.
Have you guys read this trilogy? What did you think?