Atlanta Burns, by Chuck Wendig

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Publication date – January 27, 2015

Summary: You don’t mess with Atlanta Burns.

Everyone knows that. And that’s kinda how she likes it—until the day Atlanta is drawn into a battle against two groups of bullies and saves a pair of new, unexpected friends. But actions have consequences, and when another teen turns up dead—by an apparent suicide—Atlanta knows foul play is involved. And worse: she knows it’s her fault.

You go poking rattlesnakes, maybe you get bit.

Afraid of stirring up the snakes further by investigating, Atlanta turns her focus to the killing of a neighborhood dog. All paths lead to a rural dogfighting ring, and once more Atlanta finds herself face-to-face with bullies of the worst sort. Atlanta cannot abide letting bad men do awful things to those who don’t deserve it. So she sets out to unleash her own brand of teenage justice.

Will Atlanta triumph? Or is fighting back just asking for a face full of bad news?

Thoughts: Atlanta Burns has a problem. Many problems, in fact. Chief among them is that she has the kind of personality that can’t take anything lying down. When she’s kicked, she kicks back.

Or, to be more accurate, when she’s molested, she takes a gun and blows the sack off the man who touched her.

That’s how Atlanta gets her reputation. A reputation that gets her the attention when she’d rather have none, and puts her in the orbit of two other teens with serious problems of their own. And while Atlanta tries to keep her own company, to avoid getting drawn in to other people’s problems, she can’t escape them. Abuse cries out for vengeance, and that’s exactly what she’s going to serve.

Atlanta Burns is not a comfortable read. It’s not meant to be. It’s brutal, it’s cruel, and some scenes can leave you with a heavy sick feeling in your stomach. This isn’t an after school special where the bullies are just misunderstood awkward kids who lash out because they’re secretly lonely and want friends. This is a novel where the bullies will burn a boy with cigarettes because he’s openly gay, will kidnap and torture small animals, would rape a girl if given the chance of no repercussions. Where it’s not just teens who are bullies, where sometimes cops are crooked, where sometimes parents are stupid, where racist homophobic bigots have power and respect. In short, it’s the real world, and Wendig doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat any of the large piles of crap that are out there. Atlanta Burns is what happens when one person decides to get retribution for all the hell suffered by herself and those she knows. It’s not a novel about justice. It’s a novel about vengeance.

Wendig’s writing is brilliant as usual, and the narration reads very much the way people think and speak. Slang. Wit. Observation. Sentence fragments all over the place. And true to what I’ve come to expect from Wendig, plenty of swearing, again adding to the realism of teenage life. That’s a major part of what causes this book to hit home. You real a lot of fiction meant for teens, and the worst half of them say is “damn,” and the most they think or talk about sex is in vague romantic terms. And from my experience being a teenager, things really aren’t like that. Teens can have fouler mouths than adults, simply because they’ve hit that age where they’re not longer likely to be punished for cursing. So it’s f-bombs all across the board, for the novelty of it and because there are few better ways to express what you’re feeling at that time. Wendig’s teens talk and think like actual teens, utterly unsanitized and not dumbed down for anyone’s sensibilities.

Which makes sense, given the subject matter of the novel.

Atlanta Burns is a novel sure to generate a lot of talk, because it rips the pretty veil off life and exposes the brutal reality beneath. It deals with a lot of things that some people would rather close their eyes to, because it’s painful and difficult and sometimes it feels easier to close your eyes rather than face another day of hell. It’s the kind of book that both teens and adults need to read, though do keep in mind that it can be incredibly triggering and it might not be the sort of thing that can be read in a single sitting. I had to put it down a few times just to give myself a break from the imagery and the emotions that it generated, and I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who had this reaction. I felt a little bit sick more than once. Readers are reminded at every turn that “it gets better” doesn’t happen in a vacuum; people have to work to make it better. And just in case that doesn’t quite hit hard enough, those words are stated in no uncertain terms right at the end.

This is a book better experienced than explained, because by this point, I honestly don’t think this review can do the book justice. I rate it so highly precisely because it’s painful to read, because it calls attention to old wounds that I can relate to a little too well in some cases. If you’re lucky enough to have never been bullied, to have never been driven to the point where you seriously consider harming or killing yourself, if you’ve never felt that silent scream stuck inside you because you’re on the outside and the world seems impossibly set against you and any scream you let loose will just be mocked or ignored, then this book will give you a glimpse into what it’s like to live that kind of life. And if, like me, you have felt those things, this book might give you hope that there are people out there who see it, who see the problems, and who will launch themselves into action to make sure that brutality stops.

It’s uncomfortable. It’s emotional. And it’s worth every word.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Blightborn, by Chuck Wendig

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Publication date – July 29, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Cael McAvoy is on the run. He’s heading toward the Empyrean to rescue his sister, Merelda, and to find Gwennie before she’s lost to Cael forever. With his pals, Lane and Rigo, Cael journeys across the Heartland to catch a ride into the sky. But with Boyland and others after them, Cael and his friends won’t make it through unchanged.

Gwennie’s living the life of a Lottery winner, but it’s not what she expected. Separated from her family, Gwennie makes a bold move—one that catches the attention of the Empyrean and changes the course of an Empyrean man’s life.

The crew from Boxelder aren’t the only folks willing to sacrifice everything to see the Empyrean fall. The question is: Can the others be trusted?

They’d all better hurry. Because the Empyrean has plans that could ensure that the Heartland never fights back again.

Thoughts: Picking up immediately where Under the Empyrean Sky left off, Blightborn takes readers on an impressive ride not just through the Heartland but now also on one of the Empyrean flotillas, seeing both the low and the high of the world’s 2 main societies. Gwennie and her family have won the Lottery and get to live on a flotilla, doing grunt-work and being the lowest of the high rather than the life of luxury all the propaganda promised. Cael, Lane, and Rigo are on the run, trying to make their way onto the flotilla to get Gwennie and Merelda back. Merelda is mistress to a wealthy and powerful Empyrean man and doesn’t want to give up what she’s gained. And we introduce a few new characters, part of Empyrean society, that allow us an interesting look at the other side of life.

Blightborn takes everything that started in the previous novel and expands upon it wonderfully. Characters get a lot more development, and we see much more from the perspective of various female characters and they play a more active role in the story than they did previously, which was something I found lacking in Under the Empyrean Sky. It’s good to see the development of characters who could previously be summed up largely in their relationship to Cael but who now are distinct and unique and have some interesting perspectives to bring to the story. I was surprisingly interested in Merelda’s viewpoints, since YA literature is filled with people like Gwennie (tough, determined, with a drive the right the wrongs she sees), but there are fewer characters like Merelda, who mostly want an escape from a hard life and who are willing to lower themselves in the eyes of others in order to get it. Merelda has a sort of unappreciated selfish bravery. She ran away and left her family to suffer the consequences, and she’s someone’s bedmate in exchange for luxuries, but it took guts to uproot herself and take charge, falls in love (or at least develops a strong infatuation), and she herself says that part of what she likes about the arrangement is that she can send supplies and treats to her family back in the Heartland. It may not be the most admirable position anyone’s ever taken, but it was actually a nice thing to see a character being portrayed as selfish and material without them automatically being the bad guy in the piece.

Which brings me to a similar point: this is a book where nobody is the hero. Everyone has their own motivation, everyone makes mistakes, everyone’s blinded by their own wants. People do bad things for good reasons, people get lie and hurt and the only thing that really ties half of them together is the fact that they’re all a part of one overarching storyline. Honestly, the only characters I actually like are Lane and Rigo, but just you try and stop me from reading about any of the others; you don’t have to like a character to find them interesting and to want to read about them, and you don’t have to like them to know that the story around them is a good one. This is the kind of book that really brings that home.

But while the increased number of characters whose perspective we get to see is definitely a good thing, it did have its drawbacks, especially toward the end when there was a lot of heavy action. Flipping back and forth between so many characters, all doing a wide variety of important things all at the same time, made things very chaotic and hard to follow. None of the viewpoints could be omitted without creating a plot-hole, admittedly, so none of it was needless, but so many fingers in the pie, so to speak, dragged the action to the point that it had very little tension anymore.

I’m glad this is a trilogy. I’m glad I still have one more book in this series to look forward to, because the future that Wendig created is one that straddles the fine line between “very believable” and “completely out there” and yet manages to stay coherent and real the whole time. I want to know what’s going to happen with Cael and the Blight. I want to know if and how the Empyrean will be brought down. I want to see more of the Sleeping Dogs and their plans. I want to know if Lane is going to fall for someone who’s not a jerk!

Under the Empyrean Sky was a good book. Blightborn kicked it up a notch and turned a good story into a great one. With this trend, I’m expecting the third book to blow me away, to be as impressive as I’ve come to expect from Wendig’s writing. If you start this series, it’s one that you’re not going to leave behind and forget about. From the very real and increasingly diverse cast of characters to the twisted setting and its social commentary to the exciting plot about bringing down a corrupt and abusive system, it’s the kind of series that those hungry for action and adventure will simply devour!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some corn.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Under the Empyrean Sky, by Chuck Wendig

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Publication date – July 30, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It’s the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow? And the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables, trying to earn much-needed ace notes for their families. But Cael’s tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He’s sick of the mayor’s son besting Cael’s crew in the scavenging game. And he’s worried about losing Gwennie? his first mate and the love of his life? forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry? angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn’t seem upset about any of it. Cael’s ready to make his own luck . . . even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.

ThoughtsUnder the Empyrean Sky is a book unlike any other that I’ve read. Wendig takes the typical Monsanto argument to interesting extremes and creates a world filled with corn, miles after miles of the stuff, which is about the only thing that will apparently grow on its own now since most people only have access to terminator seeds, which are designed to only allow for one planting. The corn’s not even good for eating, only being used for processing into things like fuel. It’s ways like these that the Empyrean, ruling from their floating cities in the sky, keep those of the Heartland under their thumbs.

In the Heartland is Cael, a dissatisfied teenager who finds the few things he wanted in life being forever out of reach. His sister has run away. The girl he likes is betrothed to the guy he hates. His mother is dying, and his father doesn’t seem concerned with the fact that life in the Heartland is a truly terrible place. But a chance discovery of a hidden garden of vegetables in the sea of corn, vegetables that are growing on their own and are not twisted by rot or being destroyed by approaching corn, sets things in motion that utterly uproots life for him nd everyone he holds dear.

For anyone who’s read Chuck Wendig’s blog or Twitter feed, it’s not surprising to see this book peppered with swear words. Not surprising, but still a happy find, since anyone who’s spent any time around teenagers (or even being a teenager) knows full-well that most teens curse a lot more than media presentations would have one believe. It’s something that I can overlook in most of the novels I read, since after all, I’m reading for the story and not in the search for an utterly real representation of the speech patterns of 16-year-olds, but when I do come across something that lets loose with a little foul language, it highlights how much others don’t do this, and becomes a stand-out example amongst the crowd.

Plenty of violence, too, when things really get going. Fight scenes are quite common, ranging from people punching each other in the face to Cael using a slingshot and ball-bearing to collapse someone’s trachea and kill them. It’s a brutal life, gritty and short and violent. There’s alcohol consumption. There’s domestic abuse. There’s death and destruction. It’s not a ‘nice’ novel and nor is it meant to be. It’s meant to show to the harsh realities of life in a world where the lower-class Heartlanders are struggling to survive and failing. It’s not a world that thrives on niceties.

While most of the story is told from Cael’s perspective, we do get to jump into the heads of other characters as the story goes on, providing a larger look at the events and world that Wendig has created. it’s a very diverse cast of characters in terms of personality, though not so much in terms of gender representation  There are almost as many female characters as male characters, even if the balance is skewed towards males, but it’s pretty much only the males of the book who get real development as the story goes on. The only 5 women and girls I can think of right now are Cael’s mostly-absent sister, Cael’s dying mother, Cael’s romantic interest, Cael’s betrothed, and the villain. Not exactly the best sampling I’ve ever seen, and most of them are largely defined by their relation to Cael rather than as stand-alone characters in their own right. Gwennie gets more development than any of the others, but even that development centres mostly around her relationship to Cael and Boyland.

But the characters we do get to see are nicely varied, and none of them are shining perfect examples of heroes, either, which is a blessing. They’re all wonderfully unique, with different backgrounds, different motivations, different prejudices, and it was great to get inside their heads for a little while, to see this twisted world filled with semi-sentient corn through various eyes. Wendig has a real flair for perspective, and this relatively quick read got me hungry for other stories that he has to tell.

If you’re looking for something that isn’t your typical YA SFF novel, then this is a good bet. The writing flows smoothly, the story’s easily to follow and very engaging, with characters that feel real enough that they could easily be people who live down the street from you (assuming their house is filled with aggressive corn…). It’s a set-up to what  suspect with end up bigger and more complex as the trilogy goes on, and happily so, because there’s a lot of potential for growth here and I want to see certain things explored further.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)