Under the Empyrean Sky - Chuck Wendig This was an e-ARC I received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I thought it was really fantastic, but honestly, I'm also a little lost as to how to talk about it. To understand, I guess you have to be at least a little familiar with Chuck Wendig and his writing. If you're not, then you're in for a treat...or a shock. Or both.

I only just became a fan of the author myself, having recently read The Blue Blazes and Blackbirds. I liked them a lot, and especially adored the latter. But already, I knew enough to be skeptical when I saw that this was a Young Adult novel. Based on the books I've read by him, let's just say YA is pretty much the last thing to come to mind when I think about Chuck Wendig. Instead, I think "dark, twisted and gritty", "intensely violent", and "slick snappy one-liners often delivered in a terrible ear-shrivelingly foul manner".

I had to wonder, Is he going to be dialing it back for this? My guess was that he would have to, for a YA novel. And if that's the case, how much? Is this still going to read like a book by the Chuck Wendig I know and love? The answer, thankfully, was yes. The story here is definitely all Wendig, but just imagine it tweaked a bit around the edges to make it more appealing to the YA reading audience.

The book begins by introducing us to 17-year-old Cael McAvoy and his life in the Heartland. The Heartland is interesting -- imagine a dystopian Midwest-type setting where a particularly aggressive species of corn has taken over, creating an ocean of corn as far as the eye can see. As the leader of his scavenging team, Cael captains a small airboat over the cornfields day after day, scrounging for valuables and useful materials to sell.

But it's never enough. The Empyrean government oversees life in the Heartland, literally looking down on all of them from above in their luxurious sky flotillas, while people like Cael and his friends and family are struggling to survive. Heartlanders have to deal with poor working conditions, disease, a corrupt mayor and the oppressive government, but Cael has pretty much accepted this as the way things are...until Obligation Day comes and Cael stands to lose the love of his life.

As you can see, this book has all the trappings of a YA novel, with its dystopian world and teen protagonists. It also involves an authoritarian ceremony where the Empyreans pick the Heartlanders mates for them, resulting in uncertainty for the young lovers Cael and his girlfriend Gwennie. The book even hints at a blossoming love triangle.

But while it certainly has the feel of a YA novel, to me it also doesn't. And here's where I struggle to find the words to explain why I feel this way, because on some level I think someone not already familiar with Chuck Wendig or his books will be completely blindsided by this book -- which could be good. To his fans and readers open to different takes on YA fiction, this will definitely be a refreshing change. I've always felt that Chuck Wendig's books have a "presence" about them, and it exists here as well. It's reflected in the dialogue, the characters, and the plot, which retains some of its grittiness and what makes Wendig's books so great. Under the Empyrean Sky might be YA, but I'd still say it's geared more towards "older YA". Speaking of which, Wendig does have a hilarious way with words that makes swearing almost seem like a separate art form -- so while foul language generally doesn't bother me one bit, do beware if it does bother you, especially since some of it is on the vulgar side.

The thing I loved best, though, is the world building. The story in this book takes its time and in my opinion doesn't really start picking up speed until the halfway point, but that's because so much of the first half is dedicated to bringing the Heartland to life and describing the hardships of its people. I love books like this and The Blue Blazes where Chuck Wendig really gets to show off his talent for creating unique and highly detailed settings, because he's so obviously good at coming up with all these awesome ideas. Two words: piss-blizzards -- or the stifling yellow corn pollen wind storms that plague the Heartland, I love it.

Really, my only criticism is that I wish Cael was a little more likeable. It helps, especially in a YA novel. But honestly, I really struggled to be sympathetic to Cael's character, at least in the beginning, since he often came off as immature, bossy and a bit of a jerk even to his friends. He also tended to be driven by his angry impulses and hormones, but then again, as they say, "Boys will be boys". Thankfully, I did start liking Cael (or at the very least, got more used to him) enough that I was staunchly rooting for him and his team by the end of the book. And that's the important thing.