Black wings

Black wings / Christina Henry

 

Luckily Black wings is the name of the first book and the name of the series, so no confusion here.

Black wings sits somewhere between the InCryptid books and the Ghost finders books for me. It’s an interesting premise but there are some devices that I’m not a huge fan of that prevent me from really getting into the series.

Brief plot summary

Maddy is a grim reaper, charged with ferrying the deceased to the afterlife. She’s also the landlord of an apartment building in Chicago, struggling to balance her responsibilities as a psychopomp with the need to make ends meet. Finally finding a new tenant in Gabriel Angeloscuro, Maddy will soon discover a long-buried secret about her family and the true origin of the grim reapers.

So how is it?

It’s a book I tried really hard to like but it wasn’t really for me. I feel bad about that, honestly, especially since it’s set in Chicago and, unlike some books, was written by someone who has actually seen Chicago.

In terms of setting, it’s great. It’s realistically Chicago, the geography mostly makes sense, like Rosemary and rue there are plenty of references for locals, and (which is a plus for me) some of the locations depicted are places where I have spent a lot of time myself.

I really wish there were more urban fantasy books set in Chicago. I know many authors (and filmmakers) may not know this, but not every book has to be set in LA, San Francisco, or New York City.

Characterwise Maddy’s interesting. The premise is an interesting twist on the usual grim reaper story: these people are (for the most part) just normal everyday humans, with day jobs and regular human responsibilities. It’s only when they need to go do some reaping that their powers emerge. It’s a little bit like Ichigo from the early issues of Bleach – without the rampaging monsters.

It was the execution that really held me back. The story pretty much hit every urban fantasy cliché, down to the sidekick creature that knows more than they will tell the protagonist. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but without some humor or anything else to set it apart from the rest of the genre I didn’t feel any need to keep reading after finishing the first book.*

The other issue I had with this book is one I have with many, many books. It’s one that’s probably not going to impact other people’s enjoyment of the book too much so feel free to ignore the next part.

Background on this issue: one of the reasons I prefer books over other media is that I find most media (especially movies and TV shows) incredibly difficult to follow. It almost always requires multiple viewings for me to make sense of the plot, and I frequently find myself asking my spouse questions about character motivations. As a result, I’m used to adopting a “go with the flow” approach and not worrying too much if things don’t really make sense to me. This is probably one of the reasons I enjoy Grant Morrison as much as I do, since I have trouble following “regular” stories that his more out-there stuff doesn’t bother me. It’s easier for me to figure out what’s going on in books because it’s easier to approach it non-linearly (which is partially why I prefer print) and I don’t have to worry about missing something because I was distracted.

Black wings features what I guess I’ll call the “cosmic battle” type of plot resolution. It’s very common in urban fantasy, and as a result I frequently have no idea what actually happened to resolve the conflict when I finish a book. It’s something I generally just go with, but for a book that I’m already not totally into it’s enough to squelch any interest I had in continuing the series.

The preceding two paragraphs are probably going to end up being copy-pasted into multiple reviews in this sequence. But to sum them up: the climax is muddled and hard to follow and goes for the “cosmic battle of wills” thing (at least I think? I’m not totally positive).

Since I mentioned cover art in the previous post…

Maddy as described in the book looks nothing like the woman pictured on the cover. This is not yet another book about a built-like-a-model Strong Female Character, which is definitely a point in its favor.

*After a certain point in the plot, I couldn’t help but feel like Henry was drawing too much on the work of Mike Carey and/or the Shin Megami Tensei series of video games for the plot, which was kind of distracting. There’s more I could say but I’ll leave it out so to not reveal plot twists.

Recommendation

Despite how negative I am above, I do think Black wings is a worthy recommendation. It definitely has some things going for it:

The series is complete, so people who hate having to wait for the next installment to be published can get the whole thing in one go

While it follows all the standard urban fantasy “beats”, there are enough twists to prevent it from seeming too stale

It’s set in a recognizable Chicago

Maddy is more “real” than most urban fantasy heroines – both in appearance and in personality

The plot should resonate pretty heavily with SMT fans

So it’s a decent read for fans of both urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Because it’s still somewhat generic though I’d hesitate to name specific groups to recommend it to.

I wouldn’t recommend it to the following, however:

Fundamentalist Christians (who will probably find the plot offensive)

Fans of urban fantasy whose taste is limited to Simon R. Green/Jim Butcher/etc.

 

To reiterate: it’s a book I’d recommend to genre fans who have read most of the other stuff and are looking for something new, but it’s not something I’d suggest to anyone who wasn’t already an avid urban fantasy and/or paranormal romance reader

 

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