In this riveting, keenly emotional debut fantasy from author J. Elle, Wings of Ebony follows a Black teen from Houston who has her world upended when she learns about her godly ancestry and must save both the human and god worlds.
“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.
Minor Spoiler Warning!!!
Something that was made all too clear in 2020, is that characters like Rue Jelani Akintola represent what a good chunk of the population is afraid of, a strong Black woman who doesn’t give a shit what they think of her. She’s not at all interested in being defined, branded, or put into a box by a people that would sooner take away her right to exist, rather than see her live a life worth living.
If this sounds harsh that’s because it’s meant to. And it occurs to me that while author J. Elle’s examination of the Black experience as it currently stands in America is thoughtful and spot on, she’s also required to use language not wholly offensive. It is a YA book after all and there are rules.
So, allow me.
Through gentrification, segregation, and all other forms of systemic racism, Ghizon, while existing in today’s reality, is also a mirror to our past, echoing the horrors of colonization, subjugation, and oppressive states. The people of Ghizon that weren’t born with melanin skin, chose to play ball, or simply didn’t know any better, were given no real power in either institutions, or opportunities for self-determination. As for the founders? This systematic oppression also meant the denigration and near erasure of their entire culture, including the appropriation of their ancestral magic.
This is oppression 101 and echoes the more familiar contemporary side of this story, taking place in modern day Houston, which displays all the micro-aggressive forms of racism that come with living in today’s United States. This is achieved by offering poor quality education, a lack of jobs and advancement, and discrimination in ownership of property. And while I believe every act on earth is inherently a political one, this isn’t specifically written as a manifesto but rather an eloquent and poignantly told story about the way things are. But, if this story should also inspire you in some way, I have no doubt J. Elle would very much call that a win/win.
Wings of Ebony is told with near perfection from the point of view of the main character, Rue, the books strong-willed, no time for bullshit protagonist. And like similar titles, J. Elle uses the chosen one idea, throws in some root magic, and creates a lead more than worthy of your attention. As I said, that will fly in the face of a society that wants our Black women “kept”. But not Rue, when she’s being told to fall in line, she blows up fucking mountains instead.
This willingness to jump through fire is only made bolder by her magic, at first an unwanted gift from Ghizon’s current ruler and all-around asshat, the nameless “Chancellor”. Later, she comes to embrace at least this side of her heritage especially after understanding its benefits, and even more so after she experiences a history lesson of sorts. This is the journey she’s on, with the weight of two worlds on her still too young shoulders, but she fights nonetheless. Because of this stick-to-itiveness, and like the magic she wields, the energy around her slowly begins to shift and as a result, some rough edges begin to soften. Most of this energy manifested itself in the form of anger and was directed at her Ghizoni “father” Aasim, who for all intents and purposes, abandoned her Houston family years ago.
And it’s relationships like this that are the blood that runs through the arteries of this book as Rue comes to terms with both who, and what she is. She’s the daughter of two worlds, East Row and Ghizon, and how she defines herself in the context of those places, and how she accepts the reality of her situation, is what hangs in the balance.
The worldbuilding in Ghizon is both beautiful and inspired but exists to show Rue an alternate history, to show her that while Houston may be her home, it’s a history that’s really not her own. We of course know that’s because white America chose this FOR Black people, and is the essence of oppression, the erasure of their past. And so, when Rue gets an unexpected Ghizoni history lesson thanks to Aasim, she begins to grasp for the first time that her blood, and the blood of her people, is in the very ground she walks on and goes back a long, long way.
On the surface, Ghizon feels sybaritic when compared to Houston, but once you scratch away at the surface, like bones from the past, some truths begin to reveal themselves. What you’ll discover is that both places operate on the idea that we were raised to be just what we are, and that self-determination is a luxury most Black people are not afforded. And because of that Wings of Ebony becomes less a cautionary tale and more of a call to action for Rue, offering up some tangible proof that dignity, placing value on someone just because they are human, can destroy the foundation of racism.
And even though Ghizon seems the ideal situation, just below the surface is a monster, one that, as a Black woman of the United States, Rue sees from a mile away. This monster, playing the role of antagonist, is a trickster however who breaks the rules of the gods and nature, and most definitely maliciously. The less you know the better, so I won’t spend much time focusing on that part of the story.
What we can talk about is the beating heart of this book, which happens to be the delicate relationship between Rue and Aasim. Rue is a tough nut to crack, doesn’t suffer fools, and doesn’t forgive easily, combined with Aasim having lots to account for; this is not the happiest of reunions. Their early back and forth is both amusing and painful as Aasim plays the fumbling absentee father trying to reconnect with a teenage girl who is on the cusp of adulthood. But her bitterness doesn’t allow for easy mending and pushes back at his every attempt to heal old wounds, which leads to an incredible scene towards the end that will most definitely affect you in some way. The fact is, he did bail on Rue, her sister, and their mother, but it’s complicated, and as truths come to light, that bitter pill becomes easier to swallow as Rue finds out no one in either world possibly loves her more.
Also interesting is J. Elle’s focus on Rue’s allies who while maybe not culpable, did benefit from Ghizons oppressive regime, nonetheless. Take her Ghizoni friend Bri, who adopts Rue’s “ride or die” mentality only up to the point where it causes discomfort or material change in her own life. Bri’s heart is in the right place and her intentions mostly always lean towards fairness and justice, but like many other Ghizoni, she doesn’t have much, and the risk of losing it all might be too much. These scenes between Rue and Bri, when the gig is up, are particularly harrowing as you anticipate Bri’s face-turn. Your sympathy for Bri, whose entire life is about to change, never surpasses your empathy for Rue however and whether their friendship can survive is trivial compared to the bigger picture.
The love triangle in Wings of Ebony, yes there’s room for that, is representative of the imbalance in Rue’s life. The beautiful and obedient Jhamal is Ghizoni, so when she’s there, he’s got her attention. Same goes for ex-boyfriend and East Row resident Julius, when he’s around, she seems to experience a sudden case of amnesia when it comes to Jhamal, and Julius’ prior sins. She likes both and why not, they seem to worship the ground she walks on, in Jhamal’s case that’s quite literal. I’m typically not a fan of “second chance” romance tropes so because of that I’m firmly planted in #TeamJhamal territory.
You’re going to hear a lot about the pace of Wings of Ebony, which is electric, as Rue spends equal amounts of time between both worlds. This travel time is mitigated by Ghizoni technology and magic, allowing Rue and the rest to move back and forth in a snap. This cuts down lag time in a big, big way, allowing J. Elle to focus more on exposition and character work, two things she’s great at. She also employs some time jumping which doesn’t slow things down or confuse matters one bit, instead injecting valuable insight into Rue’s character, the history of Ghizon, and other instances as well.
I’m really just scratching the surface here, especially when it comes to the system of magic J. Elle infuses into this story. It’s both kinetic in its form and kindred in its nature, but, has a stubbornness to it that relies on it’s host to buy into a homogeneous approach. Basically, it’s not always there when you need it, especially if you’re stubborn. And a lot of the drama is manufactured by some bad actors who are constantly scheming and plotting, gassed up on a hate-based ethos. Both are connected in important ways and better left to be discovered.
The bottom line is with weighty themes, and using both contemporary and Afrofuturism sensibilities, J. Elle weaves a beautiful tale with a ton of emotional resonance about not only ancestral magic but finding your way through the darkness. This book touched a nerve with me, and Rue is the reason for that. She has a voice, and you can bet your ass she’ll use it, and she refuses to accept that just because that’s the way things are, is the way they should stay. She’s a fighter, and fighter’s fight. And as someone who isn’t like that but wished they were, I love that about her.
And I can’t help but think of J. Elle when I think of Rue because she has said that writing is her most “prevalent form of protest”, and with Wings of Ebony she’s done just that. She’s answered the question of why anybody would waste their time listening to her, she’s used this platform to find her voice…and you’d better get used to hearing it.
This is her Strange Fruit.