Pros: Fantastic world-building and characters
Cons: Style somewhat stilted; some minor tone confusion; one seeming glaring plot contradiction
Rating: 3 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group
Maddy inherited her unusual job from her mother: she’s an Agent of Death, and it’s her job to collect souls and take them to the Door, where they head off to… whatever comes next. Unfortunately that job doesn’t come with a salary and it involves entirely too much paperwork, not to mention a particularly crabby supervisor. As if that wasn’t enough, Maddy’s gargoyle guardian Beezle won’t tell her why he doesn’t like Gabriel, the man who wants to be her new tenant. Gabriel is handsome alright, but there’s definitely something strange about him. It probably doesn’t help that as soon as he shows up so do a bunch of demons, all of whom seem to want Maddy dead. But at least she has one thing (besides Beezle) on her side: she’s suddenly started manifesting all sorts of strange powers that no Agent of Death has ever displayed before. Of course, whether those powers will keep her alive or get her killed remains to be seen…
The Good: I love the world-building. While I have seen the idea of Death as a bureaucracy at least once before (Amber Benson’s Cat’s Claw), Christina Henry’s Agents of Death are sufficiently different (and thankfully less slapstick) that it doesn’t invite too close a comparison. Vamps and weres are thankfully hand-waved into the background given their recent over-exposure, and the take on demons and angels is sufficiently different to separate Black Wings from the recent spate of tales in that milieu.
I also like most of the characters quite a bit. Maddy is temperamental but fun; Gabriel is handsome and mysterious yet a tad on the confused side. Beezle and Maddy’s supervisor are the true treats of the book in my mind; both of them go in enjoyable directions.
The Not-As-Good: The only thing that detracts from the characters is the sometimes-stilted writing style. It particularly makes inroads into the dialogue, which keeps the characters from feeling as natural as they might otherwise. To me it feels like the author knows what she wants to convey, but doesn’t always know quite how best to convey it, and so the right material ends up on the page, but not always in a way that sounds best.
There’s also some minor tone confusion. The first-person internal narration gives some of the book, particularly at the start, a certain chick-lit humorous feel, but the tone of much of the rest of the book can get pretty dark. Sometimes the humor undermines the darker material rather than throwing it into relief.
SPOILER ALERT: this paragraph discusses (in as roundabout a manner as possible) a potential spoiler that I can’t avoid talking about, so if you really want to be totally surprised about everything, move along to the next paragraph. There’s also one apparent contradiction that seems pretty glaring. The origins of the Agents of Death is eventually explained; it’s an issue of bloodline, although I won’t say much more than that. Maddy’s strange powers are also an issue of bloodline. They’re treated as two totally separate things, but unless I missed something drastic, they’re actually the same bloodline. So why are they treated separately, and why is Maddy at one point told that she’s the last descendant of the bloodline that supposedly also gave rise to the Agents… when there are still plenty of other Agents in the world? (End spoiler)
Despite those misgivings, I do recommend Black Wings if just for the unusual world and enjoyable plot and characters. I look forward to the next book and hope to see improvement in the writing style over time!