WINGS OF EBONY Book Review by Xiran Jay Zhao

Wings of Ebony

by J. Elle

In this riveting, keenly emotional debut fantasy, a Black teen from Houston has her world upended when she learns about her godly ancestry--and with evil sinking its claws into humans and gods alike, she'll have to unearth the magic of her true identity to save both her worlds.

Perfect for fans of Angie Thomas, Tomi Adeyemi, and The Hunger Games.

“Make a way out of no way” is just the way of life for Rue. But when her mother is shot dead on her doorstep, life for her and her younger sister changes forever. Rue's taken from her neighborhood by the father she never knew, forced to leave her little sister behind, and whisked away to Ghizon—a hidden island of magic wielders.

Rue is the only half-god, half-human there, where leaders protect their magical powers at all costs and thrive on human suffering. Miserable and desperate to see her sister on the anniversary of their mother’s death, Rue breaks Ghizon’s sacred Do Not Leave Law and returns to Houston, only to discover that Black kids are being forced into crime and violence. And her sister, Tasha, is in danger of falling sway to the very forces that claimed their mother’s life.

Worse still, evidence mounts that the evil plaguing East Row is the same one that lurks in Ghizon—an evil that will stop at nothing until it has stolen everything from her and everyone she loves. Rue must embrace her true identity and wield the full magnitude of her ancestors’ power to save her neighborhood before the gods burn it to the ground.

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

About the Author

J.Elle is an author and advocate for marginalized voices in both publishing and her community. Her passion for empowering youth dates back before writing to her first career in education. She’s worked as a Preschool Director, Middle School Teacher, and High School Creative Writing Mentor.

In her spare time you’ll find her volunteering at an alternative school, providing feedback for aspiring writers, loving on her three littles, or cooking up some dish true to her Texas and Louisiana roots. Wings of Ebony is her first novel.

Twitter: @AuthorJ_Elle

Xiran's Review

I have a soft spot for the YA dystopias of the early 2010s. They were great in exploring the ways in which power and privilege accumulate and how young, powerless people can fight back. They did have one glaring problem though--the protagonists were overwhelmingly white. Which is not surprising if you realize that if oppression is written from a POC perspective, you don't have to make up the systems that do the oppressing. This aspect of realism is what makes Wings of Ebony a fresh take on the genre worth checking out. It tells the story of Rue, a fierce Black girl from Houston's East Row, a neighborhood that makes outsiders think of nothing but poverty, drugs, and violence. But for Rue, it is a home filled with resilience and camaraderie. However, when her mother is shot dead on their front porch a year prior to the start of the story, the father Rue had never known suddenly shows up and whisks her to Ghizon, an island filled with magic and gray-skinned people wary of her.

Rue is furious that her half-sister Tasha has been left behind to the whims of Child Protective Services, but she is no longer allowed to leave because Ghizon forbids contact with regular humans. Reluctantly, Rue goes through the painful Binding process that fuses two onyxes to her wrists to acquire magic. Although she makes a best friend, Bri, the others in Ghizon never once make her feel like she belongs, and so, on the anniversary of her mother's death, Rue escapes from Ghizon and returns to East Row to give Tasha a memento of their mother. It was meant to be a visit that left no trace of herself except that, but when Tasha hops into a car with a strange man and then gets on the verge of a car crash, Rue reveals her magic and slows down time to save Tasha’s life. In the process, Rue inevitably makes skin-to-skin contact with Tasha, breaking the most cardinal rule in Ghizon, because a magic bearer’s memories and emotions are transferred to a human upon contract.

Now, Tasha knows what Ghizon is all about, and the Ghizonian patrols will stop at nothing to kill her. This sends Rue on an action-packed endeavour to find a way to outsmart Ghizon's leaders and save Tasha. The situation only gets more complicated and sinister as Rue realizes that someone from Ghizon is responsible for a new gang that's wreaking havoc in East Row, running drugs through the local high school, killing kids who refuse to get involved, and causing more shootings than ever. Although the odds seem impossible and there seems to be no way out, Rue's mother raised her to never back down and "make a way out of no way."

Like its half-Ghizonian, half-human protagonist, Wings of Ebony is a book that doesn't fall firmly into one category. It plays with a variety of genres. The difference between Ghizon and East Row reminded me of a portal fantasy, but at the same time, Ghizon isn't portrayed like the usual medieval fantasy setting that's on the other side. It has used its magic to produce technology on par with the human world, so it operates more like a futuristic dystopia, complete with categories that its people are assigned to that determines their roles for life. It's an interesting yet unnerving setting that only gets darker as the truth behind their magic's origins gets unraveled. The book is ultimately an anti-racist, anti-colonialist narrative that guarantees catharsis as Rue gains the magic and power to take down those who hatefully oppress her people. Her voice is unapologetic, though she still goes through an emotional arc of accepting herself fully for who she is. If you're in for a refreshing sci-fi dystopia infused with magic and racists getting their asses kicked, do not miss her story.

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Xiran Jay Zhao is a meme-loving weeb and a first-gen immigrant to Canada from small town China (which, for China, means a town of 4 million people).

They wrote sci-fi and fantasy books while they probably should’ve been studying more biochemical pathways. You can find them on Twitter for daily shitposts and Instagram for cosplays and very Extra outfits.

Twitter: @xiranjayzhao