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SFF and Queerness – We Need To Do Better

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5th Annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off: An Introduction

5th Annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off

SPFBO #5: An Introduction


Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig
Book Name: Under the Empyrean Sky
Author: Chuck Wendig
Publisher(s): Skyscape
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Science Fiction / Fantasy
Release Date: July 30, 2013

Chuck Wendig is a name most readers here will recognise. A stellar writing force on the internet, his opinions, arguments, sage advice and (often) sage profanity are well known and usually well received.

I have long followed Chuck through the magic of Twitter and via his blog terribleminds, and have been a fan of his wit and ramblings on both. But until recently I hadn’t actually read any of his books.

This year I decided to address that pretty awful state of affairs. With Chuck picking up the reins to the Star Wars universe in a few months’ time with Star Wars: Aftermath, I thought it best to make sure that my beloved galaxy far, far away was in good hands. So I picked up the book he himself said was the proof that he could do the job—Under the Empyrean Sky—and dove right in.

Hell yeah.

The Official Blurb

Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It’s the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow—and the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables.

But Cael’s tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He’s sick of the mayor’s son besting Cael’s crew in the scavenging game. And he’s worried about losing Gwennie—his first mate and the love of his life—forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry—angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn’t seem upset about any of it.

When Cael and his crew discover a secret, illegal garden, he knows it’s time to make his own luck…even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.

The Bad News

If you saw Chuck’s name at the beginning of this review and skipped straight to this part to see if the man, the myth, the legend has any flaws at all then we might as well get this over with – sorry, no, not really.

I guess the book could be longer? That’s really all I’ve got.

The Good News

Under the Empyrean Sky is a hugely enjoyable science-fiction and fantasy adventure. Incredibly well written, it’s a thrilling tale which imbues its character which such rich, distinct voices that I was reminded of Stephen King as I read – particularly his The Dark Tower work.

In an earlier interview with Fantasy-Faction, the author said that this story had started as a bit of a joke, as he looked to create ‘corn punk’. And while the corn and dystopian dustbowl environment is certainly an imposing, creepy and somewhat brutal background character in itself, it plays second fiddle to some wonderfully deep characters and a small, but perfectly formed class struggle.

The lead, Cael, is a touching, if often brooding, young man who is always interesting to spend time with. You can sympathise with his plight as he argues with his misunderstood Pop, or goes up against his nemesis Boyland Barnes Jr—while also urging him to fight his instincts to say and do things in the heated way that most of us as teenagers did and wished we hadn’t. Thankfully his two friends Lane and Rigo are also incredibly well drawn, especially the latter with his own problems at home, and both provide us with a little more grounding just when we need it most.

The romance between Cael and his former crewmate Gwennie is soft and sweet, and while it is powerful enough to drive much of Cael’s story forward, it is so deftly handled that you almost never notice. A touch here. A heart-breaking look there. Just enough to make us believe and feel, and desperately need things to work out between them.

And while you could argue that as far as grand science-fiction stories go, we don’t really go anywhere—the story all taking place more or less in and around the town of Boxelder—it doesn’t feel like that’s the case. It feels EPIC. All thanks to some masterful worldbuilding.

The presence of the Empyrean flotillas hangs heavy in the sky throughout the story, yet we never actually see them. Even the representatives of the class that keeps the Heartlanders toiling away in the corn are scarce, only really getting page time towards the climax. The hobos and ‘blighters’ and even a key antagonist in Mayor Barnes get relatively short shrift too. Yet Chuck makes each appearance or mention so powerful that you can’t help but conjure up everything he hasn’t told you, helping to paint a wider emotional canvas against which the story plays.


Under the Empyrean Sky is that most wondrous of things – an intimate tale, set against an epic backdrop that leaves you feeling as though you’ve experienced a story far grander than the words on the page actually convey. In that respect, Star Wars: Aftermath is in great hands. And as for The Heartland Trilogy, I absolutely can’t wait to see what happens next.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Jesslyn says:

    I love these books and found it hard to believe that they were so cheap on amazon (US). I pre-ordered each in turn and have the audio for the 1st two. I know it’s only a trilogy, but hope this world peeks thru somewhere else.

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