Book notes: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Amazon | Goodreads | Author website | Author bio  

Okay, so, Chuck Wendig. I’ve been reading his blog for years and have read many of his short stories but somehow have not yet read any of his full-length work. I know what in the everliving cornfield is wrong with me? (I said cornfield because this book has corn in it and it’s freaky corn, kind of alive, and, oh never mind, keep reading.)

The main people

So Cael (is this pronounced one syllable like Kale or two syllables like Cay-el? Or two syllables with the long i sound like Kai-el? I went with the Kai-el pronunciation in my head because a) I didn’t like calling the main character a leafy green veg and Cay-el sounds too irritatingly redneck, or like initials (K.L.!) so Kai-el it is) is the main character and I like him even though he is kind of a douche sometimes and full of himself, and might even be the exact type of angsty, arrogant, cocksure, young unhappy man-child that I disliked so intensely in high school and college but, still, I like Cael.

He has angst and anger and arrogance but it’s all understandable and relatable. He’s stuck. His mom’s dying, his sister’s ditching him, his dad is passive, he’s stuck in a literal enormous cornfield, he can’t have the girl he loves, he’s corn-poor, and his greatest enemy (the mayor’s son) is backed up by even greater enemies so everything seems terrible and impossible and, pretty much, it is.

But Cael will find a way. Actually, he doesn’t find a way so much as make some stupid, rash decisions, misunderstand people, lash out, and try really hard to fix things without understanding exactly what needs to be fixed.

But he’s trying, bless him. And he gets some key things right. And he has heart.

Other important people are his crew: Lane, Rigo, and Gwennie. We never actually see Gwennie on his ship, actually and I would have liked a couple of scenes with that camaraderie and shared interest/skill to set up their relationship with a bit more depth. But anyway.

Gwennie happens to be his main squeeze, too, if you haven’t caught that part yet. But of course the road of true love never did run smooth, especially when that road runs through killer cornfields.

Also of note: his dad, his mom, his sister, the mayor’s son, and an Empyrean Proctor who becomes quite central to the action in the last quarter of the book.

The world

Wendig can create a world, let me tell you. A fantastical, believable world. A dry, dusty, sad, angry, corn-filled world. Pollen in the air. Sun searing your skin. Breathing, thinking, pulsating, uncontrollable plants. Dilapidated towns and depressed, desperate people living under the shadow of luxurious, exclusive flotillas of advanced technology. I got it. I felt it. I was riding in the ship over the cornfields, I had watering eyes and a snot-covered bandana over my face in the piss-storm (Wendig is also superb at naming stuff in the worlds he creates), I was there.

And the people, the culture, the feel of it, the desperation, the sense of community forced to be together and forced to compete for survival in so many ways, both subtle and violent. It felt so familiar to me. It was the same feeling I’ve had in many of the small, rural, Southern and Midwestern towns I’ve been in, in some cases lived in. Desperation. Close-knit and supportive. Also ingrown, backstabbing, and survival-level competitive.

The plot

Is good. You have to read it, I’m not going to tell you the plot here.

Particular praises and whines

A whine: POV shift

About 60% through the book, when I know all the main characters fairly well, and things are happening, there’s a weird POV shift in one chapter and it threw me off my groove. Right off. Boom. Groove ungrooved.

The whole book up to this point is third-person Cael; I’ve been with Cael, watching Cael, in Cael’s head, seeing the world Cael sees and what he does in it. All of a sudden, in this scene, I’m in Rigo’s head and then in Lane’s, and it threw me off.

I get why: in this chapter, we needed to see these three characters doing three different things rather than sticking with Cael. But still. Jarring. I’M CALLING YOU OUT, CHUCK WENDIG: IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO THE POV SHIFTING THING, START IT SOONER IN THE BOOK SO IT DOESN’T THROW OFF MY READING GROOVE.

I was weirded out enough by the POV shift that I stopped reading and thought, Have we been doing this all along, this POV shifting, and I didn’t notice it? I wasn’t weirded out enough to quit reading and go back and check (it’s a great story and no way am I going to stop reading in order to nitpick things. I mean, I’m going to nitpick things, but I’ll finish the book first. If it’s good. And this is good.)

Okay.

Heads up,

SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD

.

.

.

.

Another whine: a failed scene

The heads up, Lane is gay moment happens too late in the book (also, incidentally, it happens in that weird moment when we’re shifting POVs) and it feels forced, like it was added quickly at the last minute. It’s also too stereotyped: letting us know the guy’s gay by showing us that he likes nice clothes? What. Erghgghg.

A praise: fabulous foreshadowing

I have a thing for great foreshadowing. The more I read, the more I realize how important good foreshadowing is. Done well, it makes the entire plot believable. Done poorly, it destroys the credibility of the characters, world, and plot itself. In short, the book.

So there was only one point in this entire book when I was like, Hey, um, whatcha doing, seems like some foreshadowing happening… (And that, of course, is not what you want with foreshadowing.)

You want it to flow along, be part of the story, needed in the scene, valid with the action, and that’s what I experienced 99% of the time in this book.

Another praise: descriptions of place and action

Okay, so I’ve already gone on about Wendig’s ability to create a world. To further explain: there’s a line (in my opinion) between providing enough description to make a place alive and real and feelable and then, over the other side, providing so much that the reader (in this case, me) gets bored and skims it until we get back to the real story.

Great descriptions in this book of place: there’s enough detail to make it alive, to help me see it, but never too much.

Same praise for descriptions of action.

Wendig is great at writing action, showing a big movement or encounter or act of violence or whatever in one vivid sentence or two. That’s tough, because you have to explain enough that the reader knows what’s going on.

I hate when I read a fight scene and then at the end am confused, like, “What? Who won? Who kicked who? How did that chair end up in her face? Where did the gun come from?” and have to go back and read the whole thing again.

So you need clarity and detail but not to a gratuitous extent.

I want to know what’s going on and have a vivid picture but I don’t want to read in excruciating detail how as his body whipped through the air, he felt a rush of adrenaline and sickness as he readied his muscles for the kick, and his hair fell across one eye and he couldn’t see as well and there was a sound like a dog barking behind him and then his feet hit the floor and he bounced off with the momentum, his right foot aiming straight for the villain’s stubbly, mocking chin which was conveniently pointed in his direction and as his foot whooshed up to make contact he relived the first five years of his childhood and regretted that one summer day when he whined until his mom got him ice cream. Sorry to put you all through that.

It’s a good example of what Wendig does NOT do. Wendig does action right.

Read the book! You’ll be glad.