Black Wings Beating – Review

Posted: March 24, 2019 in Critical Hit
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Trigger warning: referenced child abuse

In the land of Uztar, falconry is everything. From the ruling kyrgs in their castles to the commoners who trap and train birds for a living, Uztari culture is centred on birds of prey. Yet one bird is feared and revered above all others: the legendary ghost eagle, a massive raptor whose strange, psychic cry exposes the worst selves of all who hunt it. Many falconers have died in pursuit of the ghost eagle and the glory it represents – including Yzzat, an abusive drunkard whose cruelty has forever scarred his children. Now free from their father, twins Kylee and Brysen are finally close to escaping out from under the debts he left behind – until Brysen’s boyfriend, Dymian, lands in trouble with the Tamir family. To save him, Brysen makes an impulsive promise: a ghost eagle in exchange for Dymian’s life. As the threat of war between the Uztari and the feared Kartami, extremists who revile all falconry, begins to shape wider events, Brysen and Kylee must negotiate their own troubled relationship in order to save their future. But what chance do two teenagers have against the ghost eagle?

Every so often, I find myself drifting away from YA as a genre, until a book comes along that drags me back in and reminds me what I love about it. Black Wings Beating is such a book: beautifully worldbuilt, exceptionally characterised and deftly written, it packs a lot of feeling into a compact, pacey package. It also hits that (for me) perfect sweet-spot of magic fantasy adventure meets queer romantic feelings: though queerness is normative and accepted within the setting, Brysen is still allowed to struggle with romance and identity along a different axis, neatly paralleling Kylee’s quest to accept and understand her gift for the Hollow Tongue, an ancient magical language that bestows control over birds.

Told with alternating third-person focus on Kylee and Brysen and interspersed with glimpses of wider political happenings, Black Wings Beating is, at its heart, a novel about abuse, autonomy and survival. Since childhood, Kylee and Brysen were pitted against each other by their father, Yzzat, who yearned to exploit his daughter’s gifts while reviling his son’s comparative lack of talent. Though furious with and frustrated by Kylee’s disinterest in falconry and her refusal to use her magic to his advantage, Yzzat still dreamed of winning her to his cause and, through her, obtaining prestige. As such, his physical abuse was reserved for Brysen alone: whippings, beatings and worse that left Brysen desperate to prove himself useful. And so the dichotomy between the twins was set: Kylee, reluctant to use her talents and thereby see her brother further diminished, forced to carry the weight of the world along with the care and management of her family; Brysen, rushing headlong into any opportunity to shine without realistic planning, dreaming big to cover how small he feels and the knowledge that, if he stops to think, he’ll remember to hate himself.

It’s an achingly real dynamic, and one that sees the reader rooting for both siblings despite – or perhaps because of – how often their feelings and shared-yet-different experiences put them at odds. London has a nuanced grasp of psychology and characterisation that makes even his minor characters feel fleshed out, and when combined with his vivid portrayal of falconry and its place in Uztari culture, the effect is powerful. Reading Black Wings Beating, in fact, I was finally able to articulate something I’ve been struggling to pin down in terms of YA novels generally: the distinction between a story in which potentially difficult teenage behaviours are excused, and one in which they are explained.

In the former instance, neither the text itself nor the events it depicts make any real judgement or commentary about the characters’ actions: whether they’re being kind or cruel, sensible or impulsive, hesitant or brash, and if this ultimately has a positive or negative effect on those around them. Rather, we’re shown how their motives are justified to them, such that it’s easy to conflate the character’s feelings with the author’s approval of their actions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not, but in either case due to the lack of textual evidence for a different interpretation. In the latter instance, either the text or the events it depicts, or both, are used to make us think critically about the characters, such that, even when we understand their self-justifications, we’re encouraged by the text – and, by extension, the author – to form our own conclusions.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the former type of story is bad, or that this dichotomy between stories that lack or feature authorial commentary exists only in YA. However, in the specific context of the teenage characters in YA SFF, who are often called upon to act in extraordinary ways or participate in world-altering events, and whose youthful impulsiveness is often used to propel them through their adventures, reading Black Wings Beating has confirmed my preference for the latter type of story. Over and over again, both Brysen and Kylee make terrible choices while only sometimes being aware of it. But while London shows us their rationalisations, he doesn’t present them as being objectively rational. Both Kylee and Brysen are trying their best, but their abusive childhood has twisted their relationship, their judgement and their self-perception in different ways, such that, even when they know they’ve made a bad decision, they don’t always know what the right one would’ve been, or even if there was a better choice to be made at all.

Set over the course of a few days, Black Wings Beating uses Kylee and Brysen as an intimate lens through which to view the incipient struggles of Uztar as a whole. Though we only catch glimpses of the power-hungry kyrgs and the coming Kartami threat, these parts of the story all fit neatly together, so that our focus on the twins looks like a convincing telescopic zoom-in on the localised details of a wider landscape. And throughout it all, the influence of falconry – of the eternally unrequited love of a falconer for their birds – is incorporated into the narrative. Just as Brysen’s existing relationship with Dymian, a falcon master, is contrasted with his newfound bond with Jowyn, a bone-white boy who lives with the mysterious Owl Mothers, so is Kylee’s friendship with Vyvian, a spy for the kyrgs, contrasted with her feelings for Nyall, a long-time friend who loves her despite her indifference to romance.

The love a falconer has for their bird will never be reciprocated, the story tells us, and yet that love – the willingness to care for a creature that may only hurt or disdain you – lies at the heart of falconry. It is this love which the Kartami despise as weak, but it is also central to the strength both Kylee and Brysen show: the courage it takes them to love at all – to love themselves, to love others, and to contemplate being loved – despite the abuse they’ve endured.

Though Black Wings Beating is clearly the first volume in a planned trilogy, it nonetheless ends on an emotionally satisfying note. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of the series, and I look forward to reading whatever else London writes in the future.

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