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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.

This is my entry for Sonia’s latest writing challenge. The summer competition gave us the goal of writing a short story (500 words or less) based on a photo. Here’s “Corn.”

 

Green is everywhere. It’s the first thing I see when I wake up. There’s been rain recently, and I can feel the moisture in the soil, smell it all around me. Rain’s scent lingers in the gentle breeze. The thunder’s rumble in the distance matches the one in my stomach, and I realize how far the storm has gone and how long ago my last meal was.

Corn. That’s the other overwhelming smell. Damp corn leaves. The corn is tasseled, but the ears on the stalks are still immature, still some time away from being ready for harvest. Good. I don’t have to worry about some poor farmer coming across me when I’m in this state. It’s unlikely that anyone will be coming through the rows this time of year, though. The stalks are far too tall for any wheeled vehicle to come through without crushing them, at least aside from a combine, and again, the maturity of the ears has already eliminated this possibility. I’m not certain where I am. The sun is still all but invisible behind the heavy clouds, but its position tells me that it is early evening. The worst of the storm must be moving on to the east of me, carrying with it more than any farmer would ever want. A heavy green tint to the rear of the storm system hints at the hail that lurks within. I turn my eyes toward more immediate dangers.

My backpack, or more accurately a backpack with my name on it, is on the ground, a row to my right. Examining it for any signs of tampering, I find none. It seems to be fine, so I open it. Inside, I find a flashlight, a jacket, a pocket knife, and a plastic bag with a piece of paper in it. The paper is folded four times and is written upon in black ink. The simple script reads “You have until sunrise tomorrow. You know what you have to do.”

I shrug and nod, fairly certain now that my every move is being watched, despite the apparent solitude.

Without further thought, I shoulder the backpack and stride into the green, vanishing between the rows. I leave boot prints in the damp earth behind me, following the setting sun.

I hope that I can make it.