BlightBorn (Heartland # 2) by Chuck Wendig
We should preserve this guy for the next few generations so he continues to enthrall and entertain us with such wildly exciting books across a wide spread of genres. Period. He is one of the best writers out there – a prolific productivity, an inimitable sense of dark realism tinged with shiny hope and the gift to entertain through sheer imagination that knows no bounds.
Heartland trilogy chugs ahead full speed with Blightborn, the second book that follows the adventures of Cael McAvoy and his buddies set in a dystopian future where evil schemes of the greedy man has killed the soil – there is only corn that grows out here on earth – and the Heartland dwellers – the “have-nots” stuck in this sunny dustbowl of a wasteland are grubbing their way through lives suffering under the tyranny of the sky-dwellers or the Empyreans. The title of the first book, Under the Empyrean Sky was apt. Evocative and lush, as the title imagery suggests, much of book one happens on the ground hide and seek among the corn stalks in Heartland.
But with Book Two in this series, Blightborn – Chuck Wendig slams the pedal fully down. Both the world-building and characterization get a lot of detail as we are sucked deeper into this world of piss-blizzards, blood-thirsty corn-stalks and the deadly blight. While book one was predominantly from the viewpoint of the self-absorbed Cael set mostly in and around the town of Boxelder and the unending corn stalk fields of Heartland, this time we get a wider perspective of the world and the happenings or conspiracies that led to this dystopian setting.
In short, we take to the air.
And explore the myriad mysteries of the Empyrean Empire aboard this flotilla- Mainly through Gwennie or Gwendolyn Shawcatch – Cael’s girlfriend, Obligated to Cael’s bitter rival, Barnes in the first book. Gwennie’s life changes after the “Lottery” – where her family is the “lucky” one to be taken aboard a flotilla. But to her horror, things go spiraling downwards pretty fast – the lottery turns out to be ticket to lifelong slavery – mucking horseshit and apprenticed to a quirky scientist in the sky with his own secrets and sob-stories at large. And of course, she runs into Cael’s sister, Merelda.
Meanwhile, Cael and his best buddies, Lane and Rigo are on the run. A chance encounter with a crazed hobo and the Raiders – a set of terrorists or anarchists trying to make the Empyrean count for all their sins – turns their lives on its head. And Barnes, along with Wanda and Rigo’s father form a posse to hunt down Cael’s gang and now are hot on their trail.
If the first book in that series was one ripe with possibilities, then book two blossoms out. Then goes ahead and simply explodes. Chuck ensures that the horizons are widening. As we explore the Skies of the Empyrean Empire, we understand that sky is not the limit. (pun intended) We get to see the world of Heartland outside of the Boxelder town. But the most interesting part for me – was of course the bizarre life aboard the Flotillas. The quirks of the sky-dwellers, the weapons, their obsessions with auto-bots, their whacky parties. (Mind boggling imagination, Mr.Wendig!) all makes for an engrossing read. But in typical Wendig style, the plot dives head long into twisty conspiracies – secrets come tumbling out and revelations leave you shocked and gasping for more. I found it to be one of the best ways to develop this trilogy – with the world expanding, characters evolving and the plot deepening. And fuck-a-duck, book two ends on a cliffhanger. I hated that but now the wait is desperate and restless.
Wendig’s books as I said before, all smack of dark realism – the authentic believable portrayal of the sad plight of the Heartlanders stuck on the ground gets a shot in the arm – when compared and contrasted to the lush opulent life of the flotillas. It brings out the desolation and the grimness of the situation that both Gwen and Cael are stuck in. Woven in through these different plotlines are the relationships between the many characters. It’s complex, twisty and delicious. There is romance yes – but of more import would be themes of devotion and bonding and friendship. Especially for the trio of Cael, Lane and Rigo. Both Lane and Rigo really grow out of Cael’s shadow emerging to be more than just bit players in the overall scheme of things. Gwennie is a tough nut – and from adversity is born strength – perfectly fits her character. Merelda, personally – flitted in and out of the maudlin mawkish lover girl mold – didn’t appeal much to me. Another surprising character who is set for bigger things is Harrington. I loved this crazy fellow! I missed Arthur McCavoy but I think Chuck is saving him for the ending. A shaved knuckle in the hole, perhaps.
All the new characters – Eben the crazed out hobo, the raiders Sleeping Dogs – with their smooth-talking grinning mad-cap of a captain, Killian ( Who reminded me for some reason, of Nicomo Cosco – the lovable mercenary from Abercrombie novels), Percy the Peregrine– the control freak who is the head of security aboard the flotilla or the Maize Witch (!!) – Chuck sets up the stage pretty well for all of them. Everybody gets affected. All the pressure that was building up from the previous book finally bursts through – culminating in a stunning climax with mad with chaos ensuing all around.
So Blightborn is everything shiny and good that Under the Empyrean Sky offered us and then takes it up a few notches towards “really good” territory. It’s a great second book in a series that truly rolls the overall plot forwards while opening it really wide. The teeming possibilities are exciting beyond measure. And with the ending of Book two, I am now waiting on a bed of nails raked over a bed of hot burning coals. Get back to writing, Chuck!!