A review of Black Wings (Black Wings #1) by Christina Henry



She’s an Agent of Death who really needs to get a life.

As an Agent of Death, Madeline Black is responsible for escorting the souls of the dearly departed to the afterlife. It’s a 24/7 job with a lousy benefits package.

Maddy’s position may come with magical powers and an impressive wingspan, but it doesn’t pay the bills. And then there are her infuriating boss, tenant woes, and a cranky, popcorn-loving gargoyle to contend with.

Things start looking up, though, when tall, dark, and handsome Gabriel Angeloscuro agrees to rent the empty apartment in Maddy’s building. It’s probably just a coincidence that as soon as he moves in demons appear on the front lawn. But when an unholy monster is unleashed upon the streets of Chicago, Maddy discovers powers she never knew she possessed. Powers linked to a family legacy of tarnished halos.

Powers that place her directly between the light of Heaven and the fires of Hell…

MY REVIEW — First, a couple of prefatory comments: 1) Christina Henry has had six novels published. And, not by some fly-by-night company either, but by an imprint of Penguin, which has been around in one form or another since the 1930’s. 2) I have 0 (that’s zero) novels published. So, I certainly admire Henry’s accomplishments, and recognize the huge amount of work involved. That said, however, once you place a work before the public, it kind of becomes fair game for anyone with a word processor, an internet connection a modicum of discernment, and the chutzpah required to share his opinion with others.
A couple of websites had  been offering Christina Henry’s Black Wings as a recommendation for a while, and I was beginning to feel like all my reading of late was getting kinda-sorta genre-specific. That’s not a bad thing, not at all; I love what I’ve been reading, largely mysteries and UF fiction with lesbian characters — love it like, oh, like Jim Butcher loves similes  — and I’ll certainly get back to it soon. All the same, I discovered I was –gasp! — like, three VI Warshawski novels behind. Sara Paretsky’s smart-ass, self-reliant PI is what hooked me on novels with strong, independent female protagonists in the first place. (Paretsky certainly doesn’t need any reviews by an amateur book blogger, but I may still jot down a note or two about some things I noticed in Body Work — Yay, I’m only two behind, now — one of these days).

But, to get back to Black Wings, the premise was interesting — check out the summary above — so I figured, why not?

There are a lot of good ideas, here. The concept of souls of the deceased being led to “The Door” by employees of a bureaucratic agency is not only intriguing, with lots of possibilities, but pretty funny, too. (Imagine the Grim Reaper punching a time-clock). Our protag Maddy‘s, romantic interest is a fallen angel, and though that conceit is more than a little hackneyed, it’s still hard to resist; I mean, it’s sooo “tortured-vampire-with-a-soul,” ya know. And the author’s take on it is a little different from the usual, which is cool. When we learn more about Maddy’s lineage, things become considerably more complicated. And, of course, there’s the gargoyle, Beezle, Maddy’s sidekick, BFF and putative protector, who’s sort of endearing (except when he’s not) and who provides nearly all the novel’s humor.

Unfortunately, great ideas do not a great novel make, especially of they’re not dealt with plausibly, In my opinion, which, as I a;ways like to say, will get you a venti caffe misto at Starbuck’s just as long as you have the three bucks to go with, despite the promising premise, Black Wings is beset by a host of mechanical issues. Most of these could, no should unquestionably have been eliminated by even moderately competent editing. I definitely feel the staff at Penguin’s Ace imprint did their author a tremendous disservice with this one.

I offer a few examples for your consideration:

“Opening the door in such a way that I couldn’t see the contents inside.”

Yep, “inside.” That’s where you usually find contents, right? Now this is hardly an egregious problem; it is, however, symptomatic of the whole. There are just too many problems of usage that pull the reader out of the story to the surface, to the actual words.

“So, if what you believe is true — that Ramuell has another half-nephilim child — then that child or his mother could have disguised his essence and his presence from Lucifer. It would mean that your theory is correct…”

To paraphrase. Let’s see. Ah, what you believe is true…so your theory is correct. What??? The word I’m looking for is “tautology,” no? And, “disguise?” Sure, you can disguise something’s essence, but “from” someone? Not so much. Conceal from someone, sure, but disguise just doesn’t work for me. Moreover, the whole passage is awkward — in fact, a lot of the writing is stilted — and anything, anything at all, that calls attention to the actual words on the page, is problematic, doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare — hmm…who’d be at the other end of the spectrum? Got it: James Patterson in his Maximum Ride series.

There are plenty of examples of usage which aren’t wrong, per se, but don’t quite fit with the overall narrative style: “Busted in” is a good example and, when Maddy is describing a battle with one of her foes, she says she didn’t kill him, but she did mess him up. Hardly a grievous fault, but a long way from the mot juste, in my never humble opinion.

There’s an awful lot of hyperbole of the “So my fingers wouldn’t freeze and fall off” variety. Fine if employed very judiciously, but when overused, cloying. Also, if you checked word frequency — always a good idea for a writer — I’ll bet “almost” would come very out near the top. “The tree was so large you almost couldn’t grasp its size.” Wouldn’t this be so much more dramatic if you couldn’t grasp the tree’s size at all, instead of “almost?” I admit to a personal prejudice against “almost: :” it’s just too imprecise. When reading, I want to know what is or isn’t. If you tell me someone “almost” fell into an abyss, I wanna know if he was a millimeter or five yards form edge; the author’s idea of “almost” may be totally different from mine.

“”…scraping thin claws to the dark sky.” At first glance, this appears ot be a nice image,  but, ah, how does one scrape something as nebulous as the sky? It’s just one more “huh?” moment.

Then, there are the action scenes: just too comic book-like. And not Brian Michael Bendis-style comic books, either, but more like DC’s Captain Marvel (Shazam) in its 40’s and 50s incarnation. These scenes lose a lot of their drama, too, when we learn, early on, that Maddy’s “boyfriend” can heal whatever injuries she sustains in battle..

And, speaking of that BF…The romance — romance, hell, tween crush is what it is — is simply too improbable. Given Maddy’s personality, about which, more later, it’s hard to imagine what could attract an eons-old fallen angel. Having already suspended a huge chunk of disbelief, the idea that Maddy, in this day and age, is not only virgin at 32, but she’s never even been kissed,? Well., it’s just one thing too many. And, while her intact maidenhead might turn out to be important later in the series, here, it doesn’t seem to matter one iota, so why even mention it? Virgin or not, though, she simply too clueless in general.

The “romance” begins to develop significance not quite halfway into the novel. So, how does our main character deal? I was struck by something Buffy said to Angel in the series’ final epi, “Chosen”: “Oh my god! Are you twelve?” It’s enough to make me wish the whole romantic thing had been left out entirely. And, worse yet, there’s an implied triangle at the end of the novel.

Now, an imaginative UF novel that suffers from some mechanical issues, some scenes that don’tquite work, can, in my opinion, be saved by a truly terrific kick-ass protag like, oh, say, a Rachel Morgan, a Mercy Thompson, or Kelly Gay’s Charlie Madigan. Unfortunately, we get a temper tantrum-throwing MC who’s so whiney, I had to check twice to make sure I wasn’t reading Twilight (shudder) by mistake. Maddy becomes parentless at a very early age, manages to conceal it from those mean old Human Services folks, and basically raises herself, so you’d think that would force her to acquire at least a hintof maturity. Alas, no. As I was reading, I was reminded of another, all too appropriate Buffy quote: Giles telling Wesley “You have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone.”

Now, here’s the strange thing. The really, really strange thing, for which I have no explanation whatsoever: Despite everything above, despite the other examples of poor editing I’ve omitted, like lack of agreement between pronoun and antecedent, I find my overall impression of Black Wings is a positive one (*scratches head*). Moreover, I’m pretty damned sure I’ll revisit Henry’s Black Wings universe again in the future. Again, I’m not at all sure why; it just feels like there’s something there worth checking out a second time. So, obviously, Ms Henry did something right, if she hooked me enough to want to come back. If you figger it out, someone let me know.