Corn. Sweet, wholesome, goodness.
Not in the world of Cael McAvoy, his family and neighbours.
Their hardscrabble settlement of Boxelder is besieged by corn. ‘Hiriam’s Golden Wonder’, a genetically modified version of the plant dominates everything about life in the town and far beyond it – an area known as The Heartland.
What lies beyond very few people know. Schools have been abolished, travel is forbidden.
The Heartland, and its people, exists solely to provide processed corn products, fuel and raw material to The Empyrean – whose floating cities (flotillas) pass across the sky-high above Cael and Boxelder.
‘Where would the Heartlanders be without the Empyrean watching over them? Without Empyrean science, without guidance, without a system of order in place?’ says an Empyrean representative.
Cael on the other hand sees the same situation as ‘callous control’ with a ‘crushing grip’. Like the stereotypical teenager Cael is angry at pretty much everything. Unlike most teenagers he has very good reason. He can look ahead to nothing but endless days of working in the corn processing facility. His job will be allocated, his wife will be chosen, his whole future decided without any say on his part – ‘that’s life in the Heartland’ as the saying goes.
The Heartlanders best case scenario is to survive as virtual serfs for as long as possible. How long that will be is debatable, but life will most likely be relatively short and death comes in many forms – accidents and back-breaking toil might be the sweetest release, a merciful way to avoid the cruel tumours and sicknesses caused by chemically contaminated land, water and food.
Cael is furious too at his father, Arthur ‘Pops’ McAvoy, who seems to placidly accept his lot without objection. He works at the processing plant, with a deformed hip to show for his troubles. Cael’s mother is an invalid hovering at the edge of consciousness, her body completely ravaged by tumours. Merelda his sister regularly runs away, endangering the family’s already precarious existence by threatening to draw the attention of the town’s Empyrean Overseers, or ‘Babysitters’ as they are derisively called by the Heartlanders.
Scarcely anything exciting ever happens in Boxelder. The one source of fun and freedom for Cael and his friends – Lane Moreau, Rigo Codizo and Gwennie Shawcatch – is scavenging among the corn for salvageable parts of abandoned and broken machinery. They do this not on foot but using a boat – however this boat floats not on water but above the corn, using a rudimentary variety of the technology that keeps the massive Empyrean flotillas safely airborne. These enjoyable excursions along with their teenage freedom will end soon though – working full-time will leave them too tired or too ill for such jaunts.
Little seems set to change for Cael, his family and friends. Their paths are set, their fates ascertained. Yet not everything is as fixed as it might seem in the Heartland. Surprises and shocks are in store…..
Author Chuck Wendig frequently, articulately and very wittily offers excellent and well grounded advice on the theory of good writing at his terribleminds blog. In Under The Empyrean Sky he has ably demonstrated in practice his own enviable talent in the art of not only good but compelling writing by producing a world which is familiar yet utterly different, a society with some recognisable features but many which astound and amaze, and a plot which never lets the reader take anything for granted.
A sterling example of matching wise words with deft deeds!