In Under the Empyrean Sky, Cael McAvoy’s an angry kid who’s been handed the shit end of the worst stick life has to offer. He lives in Boxelder, a town in the Heartland, farmland that’s overgrown with mutated corn the ruling class in Empyrean use for biofuel and plastics. It’s inedible, and doesn’t so much grow as infest to the point the poor souls left to tend it really just search for ways to keep it at bay. Their little town is overseen by a clique of useful idiots who carry out Empyrean’s orders and keep grinding everyone else down hard into the nearly spoiled earth. Meanwhile the real rich and powerful live on pristine flotillas, drifting high above while Cael’s people suffer below.
Cael and a crew of friends try and scavenge what they can to get a little ahead, but Boyland Barnes Jr., the son of the town’s mayor, uses his daddy’s connections and money to thwart Cael every chance he gets. To make matters worse, the girl Cael loves, his first mate Gwennie, has just been betrothed to Boyland. In this world you do what those above tell you to, including marrying who Empyrean allows you to, not who you love. Those who defy the system end up even further under the boot. Not only will you suffer, your children will suffer. That on top of rampant illness, including The Blight (a sort of botanical leprosy), there’s not much room for hope.
So Cael is facing years of crushing poverty, married to someone he doesn’t care about while his true love moves on, and scraping by on the vermin they scavenge among the stalks of corn. Oh, and what can charitably be described as the table scraps thrown to them by Empyrean. That’s all until the day he finds a little clear patch between the stalks, and a small garden filled with peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables that have no earthly business in the hard dirt. Somehow, they haven’t been overtaken, and in fact seem to be thriving. They’re dangerous though; the kind of contraband the powers that be would crush you for daring to possess, much less sell to get ahead. They lead to a mystery, deep in the corn, which could be their salvation or ruination.
Cael’s all jagged edges, trying to see past his rage towards some sort of pathway out of the Heartland. He’s bold and brave, with a sense of duty to family and friends. He wants desperately to take those he cares about away from Boxelder’s dead-end poverty and disease, and he’ll take great risks to make that happen. He’s great to follow, the kind of hero who’s mouth gets him in all kinds of trouble. We spend nearly all our time with Cael, and I found myself on a couple of occasions wanting to get more insight into his crew: Rigo, Lane, and especially Gwennie. Those characters are well written enough to give you the sense their angle on life under Empyrean would be different enough from Cael’s to broaden the story as we learn more about them. That’s certainly ground that can be covered in future stories.
For now, Wendig taps right into the fighting spirit of his teenage heroes, confused and angry at the ruined world they’re expected to inherit. Within that raw emotion, though, is the carefully laid foundation of a rich setting for Wendig’s dystopian vision. He’s hitting all the sweet spots for Science Fiction. With a rich concept, and peopled with sharply drawn characters, Under the Empyrean Sky is a raw nerve of a book.