You’ve likely heard a story with the makings of Wings of Ebony before: girl has hidden godly and/or magical heritage, crisis sends her past careening into the present, magical world welcomes her with varying degrees of open arms, all is not what it seems. A setup like this is a perennial refrain in young adult fantasy lit for a reason, however, and J. Elle’s entry into the archetype manages to stand out amongst a flock of look-alikes, even considering its shortcomings.
For one thing, even though the archetype offers a powerful temptation to turn to wish fulfillment instead of truly interrogating the flaws of one’s fantasy world, Wings of Ebony keeps its eyes turned on inequity, both in Ghizon, the fantasy setting where our heroine, Rue, discovers her powers, and in her home neighborhood of East Row, in Houston, where unsettling connections exist between a recent uptick in violent crime and Ghizon’s seedy inner circle.
In fact, we return home in Wings of Ebony more than you might expect, and it’s a refreshing change of pace in a genre where the prerogative is often to escape the sorrows of our contemporary world instead of facing them. But J. Elle makes an admirable point of emphasizing the fact that the “real world” is not all sorrow and its magical counterpart not all wonder.
Rue, informed by her experiences as a Black girl in an under-served community, certainly knows hardship, but the book also pays credit to that community and its value. In fact, it offers as its central tenet the necessity of defending such a community, with the defining feature of its antagonist being a refusal to acknowledge it for its worth.
That much remains to the book’s merit, but some issues in execution bar it from making the most of its brilliant setup. First and foremost, it makes the mistake of focusing Rue’s character on unwavering conviction as opposed to substantial development. It’s not that Rue goes from the first page to the last with all her attitudes about Ghizon, her family, and her past completely unchanged, but it’s only those attitudes that change.
Rue starts the book, for instance, with a deep resentment of Ghizon, and by extension, her father, who left her as a child to return there, and comes to care about her heritage more when she learns its history and her place in it. No essential thing about her, though, responds to the circumstances in kind. She gets superficially stronger, as she gets a better grip on her powers, but because the groundwork isn’t there, her victory has thematic rather than personal significance. Armed with the same tools and information, she would’ve managed the same feat and acted in the same interest on page one.
This is one area where Wings of Ebony might have actually benefited from taking the ordinary fantasy path, specifically where it pertains to deepening the relationship between Rue and the magic she learns to wield. Elle makes a bold choice in setting the novel not right when Rue is whisked away to Ghizon, but in the months after, showing her first interactions with magic (and the accompanying training) only in flashback. In many ways, it’s a choice that serves the trajectory of the story and saves it valuable page time in skipping the magic-school formalities. But the book does lose something in neglecting to show Rue in the process of learning the ropes, especially where that ever-important character engine of failure is concerned. Having a character contend with the magic they’ve been alienated from all their life and hit a wall in the process is often the primary ingredient in turning a finale into a triumph––and its absence in Wings of Ebony removes suspense to its detriment.
Here, as foreshadowing for a second-act revelation, we get one brief scene of Rue trying the magic for the first time and discovering that she’s preternaturally good at it. The scene in question has multiple important thrusts––one even subtly interrogates Rue’s Ghizoni friend, Bri, and her immediately suspicious response to Rue’s talent as a product of racism––but it fails as a tool for enlivening Rue’s bond with her magic.
What’s more, that same second-act revelation makes way for everything Rue knows about Ghizon, including its magic, to be challenged, but even after the other shoe drops, the book still denies her the chance at growth through trial and error. Even when the magic is directly out of reach, only external forces prevent Rue from using it, facing her with an immediate limitation, and not a loss that has anything to say about Rue’s flaws or failing strategies. It’s an opportunity eschewed, in other words, and it’s a big part of the reason the third act falls flat.
The other major factor is the antagonist, who stays concealed until about halfway through the book, but once revealed loses all intrigue. Elle’s worldbuilding keys very skillfully into a hunger in contemporary fantasy for magical institutions established under false pretenses, and though that goal is obvious from the beginning, it’s still satisfying to watch the truth come to light, but in crafting the antagonist, she falls on the easiest, least challenging option––that goes both for the premise of the character, and for their simple, straightforward defeat.
In fact, the central conflict at large feels like a betrayal of the book’s complex aims. Instead of leaning into the systemic nature of Ghizon’s abuses, the book pins it all on a few authority figures our heroine has only to defeat to resolve. While it is made clear at the ending that there’s a substantial amount of work ahead for Ghizon, it’s still frustrating that the text chooses to rest injustice on a few bad actors in the end where it’s otherwise abundantly clear that widespread complicity is its primary enabler.
Wings of Ebony opts for the fast and easy ending, ultimately, where the slow and arduous is more suited to the occasion: in character, in magic, and in conflict. Because these areas are so crucial, the work as a whole misses the mark, despite its noble goals. There is much within it to be exited about, of course, but one can’t help but wish for more.