Black Wings Beating (Skybound #1) by Alex London

I’m really starting to question whether I should accept Netgalley invites for YA Fantasy from now on. The murder mysteries they’ve invited me to read have all been solid but too much of the YA has been middling to terrible. And yes, that includes Alex London’s Black Wings Beating, which at least has the advantages of being a) queer-friendly and b) based on Central Asian history, which has yet to be done to death in the genre. Up till the book’s somewhat redemptive ending, however, this unfortunately came very close to being one of those Everyone Sucks Here books that I could only finish by virtue of looking forward to writing an eviscerating review.

The main trouble with BWB is that the main trifecta of characters — Brysen, Kylee and Nyall, and don’t think I didn’t cringe my way through reading those names in a low-fantasy Asian steppe setting — are everything wrong with the central Harry Potter troika amped to 11. Brysen is incompetent and pathetic; Kylee is constantly squashing herself down in order to prop him up, and Nyall just seems to be around in order to pester Kylee to date him. I’m pretty sure Mr London didn’t do this on purpose as a meta-commentary on that other series tho it would certainly have been amusing if he had. Unfortunately, this book is entirely earnest, without a lick of satire in it. And don’t get me started on the allusion to vampiric practices, ugggggggh.

Anyway, Brysen and Kylee are twins who live in the Six Villages, which randomly goes from being a remote backwater for most of the book to a strategic holding in the end (more on the world-building in a bit.) After their abusive father dies, they inherit his debts, forcing Kylee to work her ass off at the falconry business she hates in order to save her family from prison or worse. Her brother, who took the brunt of their dad’s abuse while still wanting desperately to impress him, spends most of his time slacking off or focusing on his own bird, Shara, or more recently spending time with Dymian, the exiled aristocrat they hired to help train their birds. When Dymian makes the mistake of accruing too many gambling debts to one of the local kyrgs, Brysen decides to take up the challenge that killed his dad in order to save his lover: to capture the monstrous ghost eagle and bring it back as payment for Dymian’s debts.

Since Brysen is an incompetent asshole, Kylee has to sneak after him to try to keep him alive on his hunt. But Nyall, who’s been after her to go out with him for years despite zero encouragement from her (but tons from her brother, which is so fucking gross, I can’t even. The level of disrespect towards women’s choices here is off the charts,) goes after her, and things go poorly even before all three find themselves playthings of greater powers heading towards all-out religious war.

So there are some interesting bits: I enjoyed the falconry and the war kites, even as I thought raptor combat — from pits to sky — sounded extremely unlikely. And wtf is a war barrow? But the religious conflicts were original, even though the story of Anon’s initial step to becoming a rebel warlord made very little sense. The local potentate didn’t have personal guards, for real? For the most part tho, the world-building and especially the falconry felt decently thought out, enough so that I bought into the setting despite the occasional glaring error in continuity/sense. I just really disliked the three main characters and their dynamics, and while the ending points to a slightly better way forward for them, I don’t trust this author to continue this series in such a way as to not provoke as much huffing and eye rolling on my end as I displayed throughout reading this installment.

Anyway, the last book in the trilogy comes out next week for people who enjoyed this far, far more than I did.

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