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I recently finished Chuck Wendig’s first novel for young adults, Under the Empyrean Sky. As a fan of Chuck’s blog over at Terrible Minds, I felt I owed it to myself to give one of his full-length books a read, and I’m damn glad that I did.

Under the Empyrean Sky introduces us to our intrepid young hero, Cael McAvoy, captain of a teenage scavenger crew in the Heartland. Cael and his friends sail a land boat across the seemingly endless fields of corn to salvage anything they might be able to sell in their home town of Boxelder, because any extra money they can bring in helps provide for their families.

See, only one thing grows in the Heartland. The Empyrean makes sure of it. Hiram’s Golden Prolific is a modified strain of corn that spreads anywhere it pleases, choking out any other potentially competitive life (and it’s not fond of people walking near it, either). It’s the only seed that the Empyrean distributes to the farmers in the Heartland, and the returns for working for the Empyrean machine are enough to barely survive.

So Cael McAvoy scavenges, but he and his friends are not the only crew at work. The mayor’s son has a crew, number one in salvage recovery in Boxelder, and Boyland Barnes Jr. brings daddy’s money to the fight to ensure that Cael’s crew remains in second place. With tensions running high as the Harvest Home festival approaches, Cael takes his ship out for a prime target, only to be shipwrecked in the corn by Boyland Jr. It’s then that he finds something out in the middle of the field, something no one in the Heartland could have predicted. Vegetables. Fruits. Things that have no right growing in the midst of Hiram’s Golden Prolific. The discovery could make them all rich enough to buy passage to one of the flotillas, massive hovering cities of the Empyrean, where the wealthy live in splendor floating over the Heartland like Cael’s boat over the corn. Or it could get them and everyone they’ve ever loved killed.

Wendig packs one hell of a punch into the pages of this book. Deep characters and rich world building blend seamlessly with gritty violence and some of the most honest dialogue to hit the pages of a young adult novel. While some things might come across as a bit heavy-handed (like Empyrean agent Simone Agrasanto‘s name), most of the novel is quick and sharp, like the leaves of the plant that lends its name to Wendig’s self-dubbed “cornpunk” genre. Under the Empyrean Sky weaves teenage love, sex, violence, and intrigue into a wild land boat ride that will leave you counting the days until the release of volume two.

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