Black Wings by Christina Henry (2010)
I have another first-in-series book to write about, this time Black Wings by Christina Henry. It fits into the urban fantasy genre and takes place in one of my favorite cities–Chicago (I wonder if the protagonist and Harry Dresden have run into each other). This series follows the story of Madeline “Maddy” Black, who is an Agent of death (if you’re a Supernatural fan, think of her as a Reaper). Maddy’s job is to escort souls of the newly departed to the Door, which presumably leads them to the afterlife. Being an Agent gives her a set of black wings and the ability to fly, but it’s not a paying job and she does her best to get by. As you would expect from the first book in an urban fantasy series, Maddy’s life is about to change drastically.
Since this is the first book in a series, Henry has some world-building to do. The best place to start is Maddy’s job as an Agent. In this world, death is treated as a bureaucracy, where Agents receive schedules each week telling them where and when to collect souls and have supervisors to answer to if they don’t meet their quotas–that is, convincing souls to choose to walk through the Door. Souls that refuse are cursed to walk the earth forever as ghosts. Maddy’s boss is J.B. Bennett, who loves rules and paperwork and accountability. Maddy does not like him, but she does have to deal with him and it appears that he will be one of the supporting characters as the series progresses. Another aspect of this world is that it is populated with fallen angels. We learn this early in the story that Maddy’s father, whom she has never known or met, is one of these fallen angels and that as his only human child, he values her greatly. These fallen angels also have begotten nephilim–the monster children born of their human consorts. Maddy’s father, as well as the foremost of fallen angels–Lucifer–will also be part of the supporting cast, playing roles somewhere between antagonist and ally. There are also gargoyles in this world. Beezle has been both friend and family to Maddy for years, and he fills the role of protector but also comic relief and confidant. Rounding out the supporting cast is Gabriel Angeloscuro. He, too, plays the role of protector but he is also the primary love interest (which is a subplot of the novel and doesn’t ever overtake the main plot of the story). Gabriel is also the character who will help Maddy navigate this new world that she learns she is a part of but knows nothing about. It is clear, from the way the book ends, that he will also perhaps be used as a pawn by those who want something from Maddy, and that he may become her greatest weakness.
Unlike Harry Dresden, Maddy is not a private detective by trade, and unlike Cat Crawfield she is not on a mission to save innocents by destroying vampires one at a time. Maddy is simply a woman trying to do her job and make ends meet. She becomes an accidental detective of sorts, pulled into tracking down a killer for reasons that start out being more personal than professional. In this way, she is a likable and relatable character, thrust into a world that she doesn’t understand, trying to figure things out as she goes along, and making mistakes along the way. The story is told entirely from her first-person point of view, and it works in this story because we only know what she knows and we’re stumbling through the story trying to figure out the puzzle just like she is. Her development from the start of the book to the end is believable, and there is plenty room for more change and growth as the series continues. The book really feels like it’s an origin story, that she is only at the start of her journey in becoming who she will be several books down the line. I find that I am pulled into her character’s potential and want to see what else is in store for her.
There are some elements of the book that will be familiar to readers of the genre. Maddy has daddy issues (with good reason), she is a loner and mostly alone in the world when we first meet her, she is beset by foes that are much more powerful and knowledgeable than she is and who play by a completely different set of rules that she has yet to learn or even understand. In this way the book adheres to the conventions of urban fantasy. Still, it’s different enough that it isn’t a mere derivative of a more popular, better constructed series. There was enough to like in this book for me want to read the next book in the series, Black Night. My final verdict is that if you are looking for a new author to sample or a new series to try, add Black Wings to your to-read list. I would also say that if you are a fan of Supernatural, this book may appeal to you as well. It has that same feel to me and I think it has the potential to build an intricate world and mythology in the same way that the show has and payoff your investment in the characters and the larger story that Henry is telling. Again, this is the first book in the series and I’ll have to wait and see what happens in the second book, but for now, I am looking forward to Maddy’s next adventure.