The Premise: Madeline (Maddy) Black has been fending for herself (with the help of her building’s gargoyle, Beezle), since the death of her mother when Maddy was 11. She’s also an Agent of Death, whose job it is to usher newly dead souls to the Door (to the afterlife or something else, Agents never know). To supplement her income, Maddy writes recipes and rents out an apartment in the building she owns in Chicago. Life is busy and there’s no time for a social life, until Maddy becomes the focus of power struggles among supernatural beings. She gains a really good-looking tenant, Gabriel Angeloscuro, around the same time that demons and a shadowy, terrifying beast appear to attack her.
My Thoughts: This books world building started off quite promisingly with the details of Maddy’s job as a Agent, trying to coax an unwilling soul into being untethered from her body and going to the Door. The description of the powers that come with Maddy’s job – the wings, the ability to speak to souls, invisibility (to most people), and how she does it felt like a fresh new take on the idea of reapers, shinigami and psychopomps. I think that if this book had been just about that aspect of Maddy’s life I would be interested, but Black Wings takes it further by introducing us to the world of angels and demons because of Maddy’s unique heritage. She never knew who her father was, assuming he was either dead or abandoned her, but most of her problems are from being his offspring. First there is an attack by a monster that almost gets Maddy, then demons appear at her front door trying to do the same. Her new tenant, Gabriel, is linked to all of it but can only tell Maddy so much. All of this is affecting Maddy’s ability to do her job and her boss J.B., another good-looker who Maddy constantly clashes with, is not happy, and neither is Beezle, who feels responsible for her protection.
Maddy spends much of the book ping-ponging from one surprised revelation to the next — from who she is to who Gabriel and the other players in the whole mess are. Interspersed among the narrative told from Maddy’s first person point of view, are flashbacks in which Maddy relives part of the life of someone named Evangeline, a peasant girl who fell in love with Lucifer and had his children. There is a lot of fallen angels and their offspring world building here.
All of these things make for a fascinating world, and the writing is paced well to keep the pages turning, but I’m afraid I had some nits along the way. One of them is that although this is definitely an urban fantasy, I have this weird associative feeling between Black Wings and young adult paranormals, and I think that the timing of this read is why. First of all, fallen angels are very popular in young adult fiction right now. Secondly, I’ve just read Almost to Die For by Tate Hallaway and Glimmerglass by Jenna Black (two YA paranormals), so the idea of a girl discovering she’s the daughter of someone supernaturally powerful puts to mind those books. The idea is familiar, and so is falling in love with someone put by her side by her father, which Maddy does with Gabriel.
Then there’s Maddy’s voice. Maddy is supposed to be 30 in this story, but she often acted a lot younger and used phrases that felt more appropriate from someone in high school. She says things like “Knock much?”– is this the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That’s fine, but Buffy was high school/college age, not 30. Maddy mouths off at really inopportune times, not unusual in a UF heroine, but a couple of times she pushes it and ends up looking more immature than spunky. Her virginity and impetuousness with Gabriel underline her youthfulness.
I also found myself unable to connect to the relationships Maddy had with other characters in the book. They don’t feel quite real. Although Gabriel is gorgeous and a little broken, the lack of lead up to their attraction made their relationship feel superficial, and when Maddy’s friend dies early in the book, she seemed to barely mourn. It felt like I was reading someone going through the required motions with no thought behind them. Basically: I wanted more.
Those problems with Maddy aside, when she wasn’t speaking or making eyes at Gabriel, she seemed a lot more like the UF heroine I’d expect – she tries to help innocent people from the demons and monsters on the street, she wants to figure out what’s going on before more people die, and she wants to do her job. Sometimes she stumbles in these goals but she’s determined and that makes her endearing. And she’s not a pushover — she figures out quickly when someone is trying to use her. When she does figure out what’s going on at the end of the book, she makes some very smart moves, and that makes the last part of the book, the strongest part of the book for me.
I’m not sure what to make of J.B. He seems set up as a third in a love triangle but it feels half-hearted. I feel like we’re going to see a twist that involves him in the next book. I hope he gets to play a bigger role. There’s a few players and story arcs set up in Black Wings that look promising for book 2, Black Night, which comes out Autumn, 2011.
Overall: Black Wings is a fairly good read that I’d recommend with reservations. The biggest issues I had was Maddy’s sometimes inappropriately irreverent voice and the lack of depth in her relationships, but on the other hand, I did like the way the story ended and how Maddy ultimately handled things. There’s plenty of set up here for to encourage me to read the second book, but I haven’t decided yet if I’ll continue. I think this is a book a lot of people have liked, so not everyone will not have the problems with it that I did.