review: black wings

Black Wings by Christina Henry (2010)

I have another first-in-series book to write about, this time Black Wings by Christina Henry.  It fits into the urban fantasy genre and takes place in one of my favorite cities–Chicago (I wonder if the protagonist and Harry Dresden have run into each other). This series follows the story of Madeline “Maddy” Black, who is an Agent of death (if you’re a Supernatural fan, think of her as a Reaper).  Maddy’s job is to escort souls of the newly departed to the Door, which presumably leads them to the afterlife.  Being an Agent gives her a set of black wings and the ability to fly, but it’s not a paying job and she does her best to get by.  As you would expect from the first book in an urban fantasy series, Maddy’s life is about to change drastically.

Since this is the first book in a series, Henry has some world-building to do.  The best place to start is Maddy’s job as an Agent.  In this world, death is treated as a bureaucracy, where Agents receive schedules each week telling them where and when to collect souls and have supervisors to answer to if they don’t meet their quotas–that is, convincing souls to choose to walk through the Door. Souls that refuse are cursed to walk the earth forever as ghosts.  Maddy’s boss is J.B. Bennett, who loves rules and paperwork and accountability.  Maddy does not like him, but she does have to deal with him and it appears that he will be one of the supporting characters as the series progresses.  Another aspect of this world is that it is populated with fallen angels.  We learn this early in the story that Maddy’s father, whom she has never known or met, is one of these fallen angels and that as his only human child, he values her greatly.  These fallen angels also have begotten nephilim–the monster children born of their human consorts.  Maddy’s father, as well as the foremost of fallen angels–Lucifer–will also be part of the supporting cast, playing roles somewhere between antagonist and ally.  There are also gargoyles in this world.  Beezle has been both friend and family to Maddy for years, and he fills the role of protector but also comic relief and confidant.  Rounding out the supporting cast is Gabriel Angeloscuro.  He, too, plays the role of protector but he is also the primary love interest (which is a subplot of the novel and doesn’t ever overtake the main plot of the story).  Gabriel is also the character who will help Maddy navigate this new world that she learns she is a part of but knows nothing about.  It is clear, from the way the book ends, that he will also perhaps be used as a pawn by those who want something from Maddy, and that he may become her greatest weakness.

Unlike Harry Dresden, Maddy is not a private detective by trade, and unlike Cat Crawfield she is not on a mission to save innocents by destroying vampires one at a time.  Maddy is simply a woman trying to do her job and make ends meet.  She becomes an accidental detective of sorts, pulled into tracking down a killer for reasons that start out being more personal than professional.  In this way, she is a likable and relatable character, thrust into a world that she doesn’t understand, trying to figure things out as she goes along, and making mistakes along the way.  The story is told entirely from her first-person point of view, and it works in this story because we only know what she knows and we’re stumbling through the story trying to figure out the puzzle just like she is.  Her development from the start of the book to the end is believable, and there is plenty room for more change and growth as the series continues.  The book really feels like it’s an origin story, that she is only at the start of her journey in becoming who she will be several books down the line.  I find that I am pulled into her character’s potential and want to see what else is in store for her.

There are some elements of the book that will be familiar to readers of the genre. Maddy has daddy issues (with good reason), she is a loner and mostly alone in the world when we first meet her, she is beset by foes that are much more powerful and knowledgeable than she is and who play by a completely different set of rules that she has yet to learn or even understand.  In this way the book adheres to the conventions of urban fantasy.  Still, it’s different enough that it isn’t a mere derivative of a more popular, better constructed series.  There was enough to like in this book for me want to read the next book in the series, Black Night.  My final verdict is that if you are looking for a new author to sample or a new series to try, add Black Wings to your to-read list.  I would also say that if you are a fan of Supernatural, this book may appeal to you as well.  It has that same feel to me and I think it has the potential to build an intricate world and mythology in the same way that the show has and payoff your investment in the characters and the larger story that Henry is telling.  Again, this is the first book in the series and I’ll have to wait and see what happens in the second book, but for now, I am looking forward to Maddy’s next adventure.

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part three

“The Resident Patient” (1893)

The case in this story is brought to Sherlock by Dr. Percy Trevelyan.  The doctor comes to Sherlock because his “resident patient” calls to his attention that an unknown person has entered his personal rooms in the house where Trevelyan has his medical practice.  The only people in the house at the time of entry are a Russian count, who is there to see the doctor for treatment of a nervous condition, and his son, who opted to remain in the waiting room during his father’s consultation with the doctor.  Sherlock listens to the doctor’s story and agrees to go to the house to talk with Blessington, the resident patient, but when the man refuses to tell the truth to the questions Sherlock puts to him, Holmes leaves the scene, though he tells Watson that he expects to hear from the doctor the next day.  This prediction comes true, and the case takes a turn before Sherlock solves the puzzle.

For the most part, I have enjoyed the stories in this volume; however, “The Resident Patient” is, I would say, the weakest of them all so far.  If you cannot make your way through the full volume, this story is one you can skip.

“The Greek Interpreter” (1893)

Wow.  Unlike “The Resident Patient” which is something of a disappointment, “The Greek Interpreter” is a must-read in this collection.  Where do I even begin? This appears to be the story in which Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, is introduced and makes his first appearance.  The first paragraph of this story is elegant, as Watson begins his tale by saying that one of the things that has been one of the greatest mysteries about his friend was his lack of any references to his relatives.  Watson writes: “This reticence upon his part had increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence.  His aversion to women and his disinclination to form new friendships were both typical of his unemotional character, but now more so than his complete suppression of every reference to his own people”.  It’s an insightful portrait into how Watson sees Sherlock.  The appearance of Mycroft and the way he and Sherlock interact, as observed by Watson, is also intriguing.  Sherlock tells Watson boldly that his brother is better at logic and deduction that he is himself, but Mycroft’s problem is that he is lazy.  The narrative proves this as the two catch sight of a man walking along the street and proceed to reveal everything that can be known about him just from his mere appearance and what he carries.  Frequently throughout this volume, Watson has remarked upon Sherlock’s level of energy, and in this story, it is in striking contrast to Mycroft’s sedentary ways and lack of energy.  Through Watson’s gaze we see Sherlock differently because we are also able to see Mycroft–the ways in which they are similar and how they are different.

One question, of course, is whether or not this view of Sherlock in the company of his brother works in humanizing Sherlock. I’m not sure that I know what the answer to that question would be from Watson’s point of view, but we have to remember that Watson’s gaze is also the clinical, medical gaze of a doctor.  Perhaps how he sees Sherlock–as inhuman, unemotional, and heartless–makes it easier for him to dissect his friend, metaphorically speaking, within the pages of the Memoirs.

The case involves a man who is, as the title previews,, a Greek interpreter.  He is engaged by a man that he doesn’t know to use his skills but is threatened with death should he tell anyone of what he sees and hears.  It, too, is remarkable in that it offers a mystery that is substantial and, surprising, can only go solved by way of conjecture.  This isn’t one of Holmes’ failures, but it also isn’t one of his successes.  The story calls out several things that would have been sensational to readers of the time–forced imprisonment, legal redtape that gives the criminals the opportunity to escape justice, and how foreigners were without protections or assistance in England.  I highly recommend this story, and if Moffat and Co. decide to make a fifth series of Sherlock, this story would be a great candidate for an episode.

“The Naval Treaty” (1893)

In the case of “The Naval Treaty” one of Watson’s grade school fellows reaches out to him to request that he bring Sherlock to visit him in Woking (I can’t believe it’s Woking–every time I see that I think of Wells’ The War of the Worlds).  Sherlock agrees to make the journey, and when the arrive, Watson’s old classmate, Percy Phelps, explains that for the last nine weeks he has been confined to bed as he recovered from a brain-fever–which, in this case, means that he has suffered a severe shock and his nerves are shot–due to an incident at work.  Phelps has a position in the Foreign Office, a job he received, in part due to his family ties to Lord Holdhurst.  As part of his duties, Lord Holdhurst asks Phelps to make a copy of a treaty between Great Britain and the Triple Alliance–Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany.  The details of the treaty are, in modern terms, highly classified and top secret, and the consequences of any of Britain’s adversaries–France or Russia–learning of the terms of the treaty are grave.  Phelps is instructed by his uncle to stay late in the office until everyone has left for the evening and then begin transcribing the document.  He is in the middle of copying the document, if you can believe, the man needs a cup of coffee in order to stay awake (apparently not a 21st century problem!) and rings the bell to the commissionaire downstairs.  He orders a cup of coffee from the commissionaire’s wife, but after a while passes and he realizes he has not received his coffee, he leaves his office and the top secret document on his desk to get some much needed caffeine (oh, the things we do for coffee and the stupid things we do when our brains are caffeine deficient!).  When he returns to his office, he finds that the top secret document is gone, stolen by someone who he has failed to see come or go through the limited access to the room in which he works. After enlisting the assistance of the police but failing to recover the document, Phelps begins to realize the ramifications of the document going missing on his watch, and the brain-fever ensues (no, I’m not going to comment on that, I’m just going to move along…).

Sherlock agrees to take the case, and after a couple of days of investigation solves the puzzle.  “The Naval Treaty” is the penultimate story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and in a sense it does heighten a reader’s sense of tension if for the only reason that she knows that the next story in the volume is “The Final Problem”. Sherlock does not give much away in this story, keeping not only his client in the dark in terms of his suspicions as well as the steps he intends to take to catch the thief, but also Watson, and in that way we are just as cut off from Sherlock as he is.  As he unravels the details of whodunit, we see how Holmes solved the puzzle and though the thief’s identity does not come as any great surprise, the way that he brings off the crime is interesting and shows Sherlock’s skills of deduction.  In all honesty, I am looking forward to finally reading “The Final Problem” for the first time, and perhaps that excitement has unfairly dulled my appreciation of “The Naval Treaty”.  I liked this story, but it is not my favorite story.  I say read it, but don’t make it your first priority when it comes to the short stories.

“The Final Problem” (1893)

I have read that this story was first published in the December 1893 issue of the Strand Magazine.  What a Christmas present for Doyle to give to his readers!

It is a strange experience, reading “The Final Problem” for the first time after having seen so many adaptations of it in popular culture.  And the thing about reading, whatever story or novel you are reading, is that you can only read it for the first time once.  I can read the story again and again, but nothing will ever be like reading it for the first time.  The first paragraph is striking and sets the tone.  Watson tells us that it is with a heavy heart that he writes these lines.  He had not intended, he says, to include it for publication, and yet feels compelled to do so because the brother of Professor Moriarty has made claims that, he says, are untrue.  It is for him to tell the true story.  In this he reminds a bit of Horatio, who has the responsibility of telling all those interested of the tale of Hamlet.  Watson is writing the events of the story two years after they have happened, and so he has time to compose himself, and there is a sense of acceptance of Sherlock’s choices.  This is, I think, in opposition to the BBC’s Sherlock, where it is still raw in the telling for Watson.

The story unfolds when Holmes–who has had a mostly long absence from Watson in the past few months–arrives at Watson’s house and explains what he has been doing, how he has uncovered Moriarty and the extent of the man’s criminal enterprise and organization.  He is every bit the criminal mastermind and genius that popular culture portrays him to be, and he has garnered Sherlock’s appreciation in this regard.  Still, Sherlock is intent up on bringing him to justice, and he is willing to give his life in the cause.  This is something that Sherlock repeats more than once–that he is willing to die if that means removing the threat of Moriarty from the world.  It is, in every sense, built up to be a clash between two opposing forces; however, neither man walks away from the battle.  Both are believed to have perished, and this prompts Watson to describe Sherlock as the greatest man he has ever known.  This last is notable because Watson so often views Sherlock as being robotic, inhuman, a machine without a heart or feelings.  But in the last line of the Memoirs Watson refers to him as a man.  Perhaps it is only in Sherlock’s death, in the proof that he is subject to that final end just like any other human, that Watson is finally capable of seeing Sherlock as human, of seeing his humanity.  Or perhaps it is Sherlock’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good.  I cannot say.

Another insight that I have now after reading the story is the fact that throughout the story, Sherlock only refers to his adversary as Professor Moriarty–indeed, in the beginning of the story, Watson refers to Moriarty’s brother as Colonel James Moriarty.  Also, the story closes with a note from Sherlock that he writes to Watson, but in many ways it may as well have been written directly to Doyle’s readers–that he is okay with his death, glad even to give his life if it means eliminating Moriarty’s influence upon the world.  It is not intended to be a sad ending though it is meant to be a final goodbye.  I can’t help but compare this to the end of the “The Reichenbach Fall” of the BBC’s Sherlock, where Sherlock calls Watson and tells him that his phone call is his “note”. There, Sherlock means his suicide note, but in the story it is something quite different entirely.  Similar but different, and a wonderful adaptation.

If you think you know the story but haven’t read it, please read it. Though it will feel familiar, it is essential reading.  “The Final Problem” does not disappoint.