The first book in the Heartland trilogy, Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig is a Young Adult novel. It tells the story of Cael, a dissatisfied young man living in a dystopian world where wealth floats on sky flotillas and below on the ground inedible predatory maize corn is grown for fuel. Cael and his friends fight for survival, seek to improve their worsening lot in life, and dream about escaping the Heartlands and living in luxury in the sky above.
Under the Empyrean Sky has good momentum, carrying the reader forward in a manner than defies and denies sleep. The pacing is fast – perfect for the intended audience (which is a bit younger than me) – but with enough space left for character development, establishing the world, and the all-important suspense.
The tone and voice used is very informal, not at all like what I’m used to reading. Though third person, it reflects natural speech and the way the characters talk. Cael is the main point of view character, but in the odd scenes where other characters are in the point of view, the narration voice changes subtly to accommodate it – a subtle touch to give the story depth and authenticity.
While the plot flowed naturally but unpredictably from one scene to the next, the ending was a weakness. Because this was written as part one of a trilogy and not as a standalone novel, it doesn’t feel complete. Rather than the protagonist facing down and defeating an opponent, the climax was instead several big changes and challenges happening in quick succession and leading to a conclusion which was one massive change. This left the ending unsatisfying. Nothing exactly was resolved.
Characterisation is neither here nor there; the characters had agency and individuality, but the fast pacing of the story meant the opportunity to explore depth and nuance was often skipped. Don’t take this to mean characterisation was poor; it’s on par, just not remarkable.
Overall, I found Under the Empyrean Sky a well-paced novel with strong voice, full of suspense and excitement. The weakness of the ending brings it down a little, but the story’s other strengths kept me reading late at night and in my lunch breaks at work, so I rate it 8/10.