You know the thing, where you have some particular book on your to-read list for what feels like forever? And then you finally get around to reading it, and end up just wicked pissed that it took you so long, because that means all these other lesser humans who beat you to it have been walking around with this story in their heads for MONTHS now, and who the hell do they think they are? Well? WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
(Asking for a friend.)
Under the Empyrean Sky
by Chuck Wendig
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. 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. When Cael and his crew discover a secret, illegal garden, he knows it’s time to make his own luck...even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.
Confession: I haven't read a lot of YA. I want to. I mean to. But sometimes the ones I pick up just seem so checklist-y, so paint-by-numbers, that it's hard to sit back and let the story do its own thing.
And I'll admit, I had a little bit of the checklist blues here in the beginning of this one. Hero. Best friend(s). Love interest/triangle. Rival. Parental issues/trauma. And because this is a dystopian, we also have the Totally Evil Empire, propped up by Totally Evil People – well, all right, MOSTLY evil people – because, you know, evil.
But hear me out, now: cornpunk.
Seriously. Evil corn. Evil, out-of-control corn sucking the life from the soil and sickening the people who tend it. Corn so unnatural that you can use it for plastics, fuel, or anything else, just as long as you don't eat it. Corn that is literally not even food.
THAT is what I showed up for, and that is what this book delivered in sinister leafy spades. (And in case you were wondering, yes, we're definitely tilting at real-world windmills here: when the villain's name is "Agrasanto", it's not hard to imagine which two mega-corporations the author's got in his crosshairs). Regardless, you read something like this here...
"Cael wipes blood off his arms and swats away a stalk of corn that has bent down toward him. They say the corn can't smell blood, but Cael doesn't buy it."
... and if getting the toe-curling tickle-shivers reading that is wrong, then dang it, I don't wanna be right.
And then there's the creepy bio-domes. And the pollen-storms. And the plant-cancer. And I don't know exactly where, but somewhere around the hundred-page mark, I forgot to count tropes or guess what would happen next and just got sucked into a world of giant threshing engines, plastic-bubble ghost-towns, and a trail of mysteriously fresh vegetables that leads out from the corn-fields, and into an action-tastic, page-burning plot.
I've read some other reviews of this book, talking about standard dystopian tropes and not-so-fleshy characters, and I can see where that comes from. I do like it when books are more 'challenging' on that front – you know, when the story's people and institutions are more complex, less absolute. My hope is that this book is taken up with establishing what the next one will skew/reverse/muddle, and that we'll get some more shades of gray going a little further on down the road.
Regardless, I'll tell you this: I sat in cold bathwater for the better part of an hour last night, helplessly pruning up as I tore through the last hundred pages with wild, wrinkly abandon, and I'm only writing this now so that my review wouldn't be colored by anything in the next book.
Which I'm downloading right now.
The corn compels me.
My favorite bit:
Normally he'd talk to her. Light, polite conversation: Heard a twister hit Guster's Grove couple days ago, piss-blizzard's coming, Lane and Rigo are good, got a portion of squealer meat a few weeks back, Pop's okay, so's Mer, got a shuck rat for dinner, everything's pretty fine, don't worry one lick about anything. He'd feel like a real monster telling her all the things that are really going on. All the things he's feeling. Hey, Mom, I know you're trapped inside that thing you call a body, and while I got you here, maybe I could burden you with MY problems? How's that sound?
Today, though, he's got to hurry off. Got to get Mer to milk the goat and then head to market.
He kisses his mother on her brow, just where the tumors recede - he's not grossed out by them anymore, but he hopes she still has some sensation left beyond the cancerous margins.