Under The Empyrean Sky takes off screamin’ – a “race” takes place with the protagonist and his gang against another scavenger team to reach for the (comparatively) big prize. In the midst of the action, Mr. Wendig clearly portrays characters and the unique characteristics of this world of flotillas and heartland. These quick “brush-stokes” that provide a hasty sketch of it all do so through the story and action. Wow, I’m thinking, this will be great – a well-paced story, maybe leaving one a bit breathless. The pace slows quickly; you have a good deal of exposition to provide background or reveal the world and characters are more fully introduced. Hey, it’s early on in the book, so it makes sense to spend some time doing this, but I prefer more story being used to provide the background (here’s a brief synopsis of the story).
Alas, somewhere in the midst of the corn, Mr. Wendig wanders off his narrative path for awhile. He seems to move from providing character and setting through a driving narrative to using exposition to elucidate his people and world. Leaning on exposition is made more difficult through his characters, who, while well defined and memorable, are not very likable. In particular, Cael is a whiny teenager who seems no more likely to draw a following than young Anakin Skywalker would draw a princess to love a whiny, self-absorbed teenager. In both cases it happens, but it doesn’t seem very believable. It probably doesn’t help that I’m a little burnt out on dystopias and, hence, less patient than usual. Nicely enough, Mr. Wendig recovers well and takes the second half of the book to a different place.
While, after the initial introduction, the story really began to drag, that changes with The Garden. Not only does the narrative pace pick-up, but everyone gains a deepening of character. Cael shows another side and his leadership qualities become clear. Action drives Mr. Wendig’s storytelling which he also uses to develop characters and his world. So, I really enjoyed the second half of the book and look forward to Blightborn, the second in this Heartland series. Mr. Wendig leaves us on a cliff-hanger with the whole playing field reset for his character’s relationships and their setting (flotilla, here we come). While I had to wade through a bit of exposition, overall, Mr. Wendig tells a nice story in a richly detailed world with characters that grow on you.
As I often do, I went between the Kindle and the Audible version (using that lovely Whispersync for Voice). Nick Podehl is one of the better narrators around. Before this book, I most recently heard him in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles series. Mr. Podehl can move from concerned parent to whiny brat in the blink of an eye. He knows how to pace the tale and, no matter which character he voices, his articulation is spot on. Under the Empyrean Sky is another nice narration under his belt.
As a bit of an aside, thinking some of the challenges in the story’s middle make me reflect on how a writer as good as Mr. Wendig might have fallen into a bit of a muddled middle. I suggest it’s a perfect example ensuring that the reader cares. Long exposition with little storytelling is dangerous precisely because the connection and care that may have been built can easily be lost. Moreover, you can have the best defined, most interesting and multi-facet protagonist on the planet but we won’t care about him/her unless the character is appealing. In this case, one race does not a connection make. We won’t be driven to care about these characters after a race against another scavenging team and the ensuing difficulties. Maybe I’m just hard hearted, but just knowing that their life isn’t fair is not going to do much for me sympathizing with the characters. I need to care about them personally, not just feel a minor tug of pity for them based on their lot in life. I suggest we come to care through story; it is in the narrative that we become invested in the character. But there is very little narrative movement after the race and before the garden. We learn a lot of stuff about the world and the characters, but it’s stuff at least I don’t much care about. It’s so much trivia.
Initially, the protagonist is just plain annoying until the garden. None of his characters in the middle are all that attractive (with the exception of Gwennie but she receives relatively little air time). and, while their well-written, true to their character and may be appropriate for the story, at least one main character has to be attractive or we simply won’t connect. We typically won’t wait until the mid-point to care. Mr. Wendig is good enough of a writer to hold us through this, but it doesn’t help the story. So, the moral of the story appears to be to avoid long-exposition without narrative drive and have at least one main character with a large presence at the beginning of the book be likable from the outset.
All this being said, Mr. Wendig, thanks for the first ride through the heartland; I’m looking forward to a hop on the flotillas.