Black Wings Beating is a book that caused me to literally screech in delight when I received it in a Secret Santa exchange with my friends. I’m pretty sure that I told my friend that I would “kill or maim” people if necessary to get my hands on this book.
So, you know, good on her for preventing the harm of innocent individuals.
All joking aside, I was super hyped about this book as soon as I heard that Adam Silvera, one of my favorite authors, wrote a blurb on the book's cover. Obviously, I had to get my hands on it. Queer characters? Check. Magic? You bet. Super emotional and complex family dynamics set in a richly woven world where birds are revered? Absolutely.
Black Wings Beating, by Alex London, is the story of twins Brysen and Kylee, two teens raised near the Six Villages, where people flock from all over the world to buy all different kinds of birds and falconry equipment. The siblings are struggling to pay off the debts left by their abusive father, who was killed in an attempt to capture the elusive ghost eagle, a man-sized bird of prey so feared that people dare not speak its name. Brysen, a boy who is as impulsive as he is stubborn, longs to become a great falconer and travel the world with the boy he loves. Kylee, born with an ancient gift for falconry, wishes to put falconry behind her and take control of her own destiny.
While an enemy army approaches the Six Villages, Brysen and Kylee are forced to take on a deadly and near-impossible task: to capture the ghost eagle. While on this journey, Kylee and Brysen learn more than they ever thought possible about what they’re willing to do in the name of love.
From the get-go, London establishes his protagonists as distinctive characters with very different ideas of what they want to accomplish, as well as how far they’re willing to go to accomplish those goals.
Brysen is reckless to the point of putting himself in danger nearly constantly. He lacks his sister's natural talent for falconry, though he tries with an earnestness that is almost painful. Brysen is headstrong, quick to anger, easily hurt, and deeply loyal to the people he loves. He’s kind of a gaping wound, and I love him for it. It’s easy to root for this kid, because despite how deep his wounds are, he just wants, so desperately, to be loved and accomplish great things. I totally relate to Kylee’s fierce, protective love for him, combined with the exasperation and anger she feels when he reacts so badly to her attempts to protect him.
Kylee is a really lovely character, too. She’s a very internal character, and doesn’t wear all of her emotions on her sleeve (unlike her brother). She has deep wounds too, and dark secrets that she keeps from Brysen and the reader. Kylee spends most of the story with the heavy weight of these secrets on her shoulders, and it impacts her relationship with Brysen in such a complicated, sad way. I give major props to London for pulling off some amazing twists and secret reveals through Kylee, because it is hard to do that without frustrating the reader. That reveal right by the climax of the book was, mwuah, magnifique.
I also appreciated that Kylee’s voice feels authentic, and her frustrations, worries, and hopes are as compelling as Brysen’s. I tend to be skeptical when I read female protagonists written by cis male writers, but London did a great job here. She isn’t sexualized (I actually got some asexual vibes from her, which was great!), and her priorities are right where they should be, given her character arc. No unnecessary romance subplots here, thank you very much!
I was truly invested in Kylee and Brysen’s journey, and London does an amazing job of exploring love, power, and loyalty, in all their many forms, through these two characters. Also, I love so very much that Brysen is the romantic, and Kylee is the super talented, magically gifted character who has the cool power that could reshape their entire world.
I had fun learning about the world through Kylee and Brysen’s eyes. It admittedly took me a minute to embrace the sheer frequency of bird puns and bird sayings. I did warm up to it, and found that it’s a clever way of showing, from a linguistic perspective, just how revered birds are in this society. London has created an intricate society where birds of prey ingrained into the Uztari people’s religion—which is contrasted by their enemies, the Kartami people, who want to reclaim the land that was taken from them and rid the skies of birds.
This setup is a great foundation for London to explore power dynamics, loyalty, religious zealotry, and the conquering of other peoples’ lands. I have a strong sense that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg on these themes in book one, and that the next books are going to dig even deeper from a world-building perspective.
And the birds! It’s obvious that London is writing with passion for these fierce, beautiful animals. If I have to pinpoint my favorite part of the book, it’s where London describes something that can occur when a bird of prey becomes so dependent on their handler that they are “fistbound”—unwilling to take flight from their handler’s arm. Then London uses that very word to describe Kylee’s relationship with Brysen! It’s! So! Good! The birds help characterize the world, the protagonists, and they work beautifully on a thematic level.
There’s much more I could say about this book, but I think it’s best if I leave the rest of the story’s magic for you to discover yourself. I can’t wait to see where book two will take Brysen and Kylee, and what roles they will play in their changing world.
Black Wings Beating is available for purchase at Barnes and Noble for $17.99.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.