So a corn-punk fantasy? What in the name of blue blazes is that?
Ah. Hear the answer from the Master of Diversity and Diversification and Versatility, the evil genius Chuck Wendig overlord at the fantastic blog, Terrible Minds –
"I posted on TerribleMinds at one point, saying, "Let's come up with some funny sub-genres." Something-punk. You know, this-punk and that-punk. Funny-punk. It's punk-punk. And I came up with "corn-punk." It's a future run on corn, ha ha. But then I thought, "Well, that's actually creepy, because corn is sorta scary these days." So I started extrapolating that, and I created this very sunny, dustbowl, agricultural dystopia in the far-flung future where corn has taken over. And it's about a young boy struggling against the rich people who live in big ships above his head."
The result is this. First book in a heart-stopping trilogy based on "corn" being the ultimate evil called Under the Empyrean Sky. And boy did I love it or what!
To realize the depth of such a differently imagined dystopian setting and to stay true to the voice of a sixteen-year old YA protagonist stuck in that hopeless environment and to flesh out a conflict-ridden story that doesn't get preachy about environmental problems and yet retains that theme front and center - is true genius. And Chuck Wendig proves himself to be that incredibly versatile writer who sticks true to his guns and comes out rail-gun blazing with such novel ideas. AND manages to make it stick and matter.
So on to the incredibly imaginative setting of the novel - Heartland is a desolate sunny "dustbowl" somewhere in this world far years ahead - where corn is the only crop being grown in the fields and like a slow predator, corn has killed pretty much all of the other crops - vegetables, fruits. Somewhere in the middle of the book is a terribly moving scene where Cael's (the protagonist) father explains that the incredibly sweet fruit he is slurping on - is actually mango. A scene that brings out the pathos and desperation in this world where nothing else grows. And it is this way simply because the Empyrean Empire chooses it to be. The Have-Nots grub their daily life, scraping through a living by either working in the fields manning and guiding "motorvators" - giant corn-threshing machines or in the factories where corn is being processed. The Haves of the world - live on Floatillas - giant floating cities in the sky. Away from the filth and mess of Heartland.
I didn't go into the book thinking this was going to be YA or anything at all for that matter. I just dove straight into the meat of the story and the never-ending stretches of corn-fields just sucked me in. Not to forget - the authentic original voice of Cael McAvoy, sixteen-year old rebel-yell, captain of a scavenger crew looking to hit back at the Empyrean empire who are the tyrants above. Chuck Wendig gets the voice of this surly teenager bang-on - his frustration at his father - unwilling to do anything to improve their quality of life and succumbing to the shackles of the empire - in the form of the mayor Barnes, the angst of a teenager in love, the trials that test the bonds of his friendship and love. All of this is beautifully etched out by Chuck. The usual problems of a teenager is multiplied ten-forth in these trying circumstances and Chuck really throws them into the blender. And yet by the end of book one, the revelations leave enough room for this sixteen year old to be growing into a man.
And Cael is admirably supported by the other characters - his father, his gang cronies Lane and Rigo etc. Maybe Chuck underplayed the role of the ladies in this book - Gwen, Merelda or Wanda. But I think I'm going to be seeing a lot more of them in book#2.
The bullying, the swearing, the girlfriend issues, the growing chasm between a teenager and their parent - check. Well drawn up and colored in typical Chuck Wendig prose that really drives home the setting. And yet none of this takes away the sheen from the root of the evil. Corn. Without getting preachy about environmental decline and real problems of poverty and famine due to poor agricultural practices, Chuck moves the plot along at a rapid clip - bringing in secondary characters, heightening the tension and really dragging Cael and gang through muck and filth. The antagonists make thier appearance; all of them three-dimensional and some nasty figures at that. Be it Barnes Jr - Cael's bitter rival gangleader in the scavenging business, the local police-goon who has a thing for Cael or the Proctor - An empyrean citizen, a cold-hearted callous female who detests the every act of even stepping into the Heartland.
So there you have it. A taut dystopian thriller - set in an incredibly original setting featuring some endearing compelling characters with a plot that races along on hover-rails and leaves you gasping and begging for more. Don't get worked up - coz Book # 2, The Blightborn Empire is soon coming out.