The dramatic cover of this book caught my eye several times over a few weeks, online and in the real world.
Eventually it seemed that it was virtually stalking me, so I gave in and acquired a copy. I’m glad to say that in this case at least nothing is lost by judging a book by its cover.
The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a tiny South Australian farming community beset by drought. Rain has been absent for years, the countryside is parched, times are hard, tempers are frayed and tensions are high all round.
Aaron Falk is a Federal Police detective based in Melbourne, specialising in financial crime. Originally from Kiewarra, one day he gets a phone call telling him his best friend from his school days in the town, Luke Hadler, is dead – along with his wife and young son. All of them shot with the family’s own shotgun, apparently by Luke.
However, Falk’s own past ties to Kiewarra are far from straightforward – as is the reason why he left the town so many years before.
When he returns ‘home’ for the funeral, his own unfinished business comes back to haunt him in unexpected ways.
Can Falk unravel the intensely personal and intricately intertwined mysteries of the past and the present?
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!
“…in protest against her parents…For instance she wrote her short English essay in German and claimed in a History exam that the Bronze Age began on the 14 February 1972”
If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson’s first book, the style in his follow-up novel will be familiar. For those who haven’t read his breakout work, the fact that he has retained this same approach is a very good thing.
The Swedish author has a way with words, with ideas and plot turns and twists, that are all his own. Something akin to Terry Pratchett, Jonasson can convey deep thoughts about serious topics with a light touch, one that’s often also laugh out loud funny.
The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is not quite as funny as the original book, but very good fun none the less. Jonasson relishes unexpected developments and story direction, constantly surprising his reader with his inventiveness.
Not to give away too much of the story but if you can think of another book that could conjure up a situation where the slightly drunk Prime Minister of Sweden is rooting out potatoes in full evening dress in a remote field while nearby the equally merry Swedish King takes an axe to the necks of three chickens you have one over on me.
Central to the story is a nuclear bomb that links the lives of all the characters, starting with the main protagonist Nombeko – a gifted young girl living on her wits in apartheid South Africa when we meet her first. A series of extraordinary events as well as some extremely ordinary ones involve South African government officialdom, Israeli intelligence, a family of Chinese counterfeiters, two Swedish twins with a secret and an angry young girl and her (possible) Countess Grandmother in rollicking waves of adventure, unexpected complication and frequent mayhem. Not forgetting the Swedish King and PM’s nocturnal culinary efforts.
In common with Pratchett, Jonasson has a gift for depicting reality as the most absurd perspective of all. Everything else he creates and conjures up seems remarkably reasonable in comparison, and this contrast tells us a great deal about our own world and how odd really are the things we take for granted as ‘normal’.
A charming, warm, and sweet tale of what life can throw at a person – and what they can throw back.