"Black Wings" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Flame Tree Press
Written by Megan Hart
2019, 240 pages, Fiction
Released on February 14th, 2019
Flame Tree Press made a big splash in the second half of 2018 with a string of horror novels by leading lights in the genre, including Ramsey Campbell, Jonathan Janz, Tim Waggoner and John Everson. Black Wings sees a change of direction; this latest offering is more thriller than horror, by an author better known for writing erotic fiction. One online source noted Megan Hart “occasionally dabbled in horror”, but if Black Wings is anything to go by, I hope she returns to the darker side of fiction with more frequency.
Briella Blake is a ten-year-old girl who is incredibly intelligent, but she is also having friendship problems at school, which are partially a biproduct of her condescending attitude towards both her classmates and teachers. Briella lives with her mother, Marian, and stepfather, whilst her biological father periodically reappears on the scene. They are short of cash, but a happy family. Much of the novel centres on the family dynamics and Marian’s internal struggle to understand her daughter’s challenging needs and the root of her problems at school.
One of the major strengths of Black Wings is the relationship between mother and daughter and the level to which Marion is blinded by Briella’s intelligence. Even if she is a genius, she continues to throw wild tantrums and gets increasingly unpredictable with her parents struggling to cope. Would any parent like to be comprehensively out-argued by their ten-year-old? Even though the story is told in the third person from Marion’s point of view, we never truly see it from Briella’s angle, so a hint of unreliable narrator also lurks in the background. The story contains a certain amount of ambiguity, which is handled very well, with the mother obviously under extreme strain.
Because of Briella’s problems at school she is given a scholarship to Parkhaven, a private school for extremely gifted students which does not follow a normal curriculum. Pupils are allowed to carry out their own personal research into areas which stimulate their own interests. This develops into a key element of the story and I will provide no spoilers. Initially her parents are reluctant to send her to this new school, which Briella’s father said was for “retards”, but she settles well, until other strange behaviour escalates.
It is a fact that parents can genuinely struggle with difficult children and Black Wings has an original, honest and for the most part believable take on these problems. Marion thought, “Just because she didn't like her kid, that didn't mean she didn't love her.” So even if you find Marion to be an irritating neurotic, most readers will empathise with her troubling family situation.
As Black Wings is more thriller than horror, it has more in common with The Bad Seed than The Omen and it cleverly shrouds the direction the plot heads into, developing tension and making it very easy to read. It is also one of those books which readers who do not read horror might enjoy, as although it does eventually head into the ‘unexplained’, by that point readers are so invested in the story few will quit before the end. Horror takes many forms and the realisation that there might be something seriously wrong with your kid is right at the top of the list for most folks.
Briella’s favourite subject is science and in her new school she is encouraged to work on a ‘secret project’ and shows interest in subjects such as the human soul. She asks complex questions her mother just cannot answer and in turn Marion struggles with her own lack of faith after abandoning her childhood Christian roots.
The family beats at the heart of Black Wings and Hart has created a believable and sympathetic family unit. However, their family is lacking one crucial member; a pet. When a car accidently clips a raven, Briella insists her family restore it to health, calling it “Onyx” the bird seems to be unnaturally intelligent and is quickly trained by the little girl. Onyx mimics speech, appears when called, and pecks at the window when left outside. Brielle develops a strange relationship with the bird, escalating the difficulties in her family as the raven repulses them. This part of the plot is excellent and the bird creepily unsettling as it ties into the wider story arc.
This is horror with a light touch, and although the ending may seem a bit far-fetched, it is a fast moving and entertaining drama which I sped through in a couple of days and is well worth checking out.