To many fantasy readers, there is something alluring about the idea of a magical world hidden from view, the possibility that it could be ours to use if we just know how to pierce that veil of secrecy. You see it in the likes of Harry Potter, Three Dark Crowns (although that is actually high fantasy, whereas the others are urban), all of Cassandra Clare’s works, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
Wings of Ebony is the newest addition to this urban fantasy subgenre, with the hidden country of Ghizon tucked away on an island cloaked by magic. Rue is brought to Ghizon after her mother is killed, where she learns about the place where her father is from and the magic that comes from there.
If you haven’t read the novel yet, there will be a spoiler-free review coming in a week or two. This post, however, will be looking at how the setting and plot elements intertwine, how the rules of a world can make or break a plot’s stakes. We’ll use Wings of Ebony as a case study for plot-driven fantasy and what can happen if one focuses so heavily on making a book fast-paced that it forgets to lay down the road first. (I think that metaphor makes sense.) Warning: spoilers abound.
The Hidden World: Ghizon
Ghizon is a country hidden within the Himalayas. It is ruled by a man called the Chancellor with the assistance of his friend, the General. The country worships the Chancellor because he has magic that he bestows to whatever people he deems worthy, and these people are bound with onyx that holds their magic. But Ghizon is not what it seems. Two generations ago, there were four tribes, only one of which had magic. The General, who is actually a regular person, used his military training to help the Chancellor eradicate the tribe with the magic, stealing it from the few survivors somehow so he could take control of his New Ghizon.
Gray vs Black
Like in her home-country of America, East Row, Texas, Rue stands out in Ghizon because of the color of her skin. The old Ghizoni magic tribe was the only one of four that had dark skin. Presumably, everyone else had that gray-tinted pallor that marks Ghizoni from a regular person. Additionally, it is absolutely forbiddon for Ghizoni people to leave their hidden world and visit the “real” world because magic goes haywire when the Ghizoni touch someone from the “real” world. There’s really no diversity in culture or skin tone on Ghizon because everyone is from the same place. In a way, it’s almost surprising that Rue only deals with a few microaggressions in her year-long stay in Ghizon, and most of that could be just as easily linked to her “half-human” status as anything else.
This can perhaps be linked to Ghizon’s propaganda. History is one of the very few classes Rue mentions, and in a flashback scene, we learn that the students only learn about New Ghizon, starting with the Chancellor’s consolidating power. The source of New Ghizon’s magic, the fact that it is stolen from another tribe, is kept secret from the general population. And yet, when Rue’s father, Aasim, is the only dark-skinned character present in New Ghizon, it does beg the question why he doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb, why people never think to ask where Aasim is from since he doesn’t look like anyone else.
Not Your Average Hogwarts
Beyond the likes of the steampunk subgenre, magic and science tend not to get along. Urban fantasy, especially those with the hidden world trope, tend to treat magic the same way that epic and high fantasy present the same: nostalgic and ancient. People who use it wear robes, use quills, and opt to use magic rather than modern weapons even when the latter might be more practical.
Wings of Ebony, for its part, is less hesitant to merge the two. While there is still talk of robes rather than normal wear, there are also two characters, Bri and Jhamal, who are able to use magic to create some sort of psuedo-technological equivalent to more human-like devices. Well, sci-fi tech, more like; cloaking spells, teleportation, anti-aging, that sort of thing. And yet there is still a distinct separation between the haves and the have-nots, because people who don’t have magic are living in plain, concrete-bunker type housing, with the younger generation feeling like it’s their responsibility to get magic for their family to improve their standard of living.
Twirl Your Mustache Kind of Evil: The Stakes
Ghizon and East Row should not mix, based on the rules that were established early on in the novel. It’s supposedly why Rue is in such danger after she rescues her sister Tasha and breaks Ghizoni Magic Rule #1: Don’t touch humans. So it should have come as a complete surprise when East Row’s gang leader, Litto, ends up being none other than the General himself, therefore connecting the two halves of Rue’s life and ideally upping the stakes for defeating Ghizon’s leadership.
However, that particular reveal leaves us with several questions, some of which are answered or loosely implied in the text and some that are not.
- Why is the General involved with a human neighborhood? This is answered by the reveal that he is in fact a human who made a deal with the Chancellor several decades ago.
- Why East Row? As far as I can tell, the General is not from East Row. It seems more likely that he was doing it to spite or punish Aasim for hiding the Ghizoni magic tribe’s ancestral magic cuffs in that neighborhood with Rue’s mother.
- What did he hope to accomplish? This particular question was not answered, or even implied, really, beyond the basic, easy answer of he’s a racist and this is a black neighborhood.
The why is just as important as the what when it comes to stakes. The what provides the actual plot points; the why supplies the tension. In this case, the General’s motivations are offered, but they are insubstantial. He is racist, and his anger towards black people is spurred on by the promotions and jobs he was denied because someone with a different skin color got it instead. But why East Row? Why force kids’ involvement with drugs?
Through some context clues, we can extrapolate that he knows the Ghizoni magic cuffs are located in East Row, and he knows that Rue is Aasim’s daughter. We can guess that the General targeted Rue’s neighborhood in particular because people who get caught up in drug dealing and the like cannot advance in society, and that the General is using the stereotype of drug dealing to keep Rue and her people down.
But character motivations should not be assumed or extrapolated. It should be a concrete detail proffered to the reader early on. It will help establish the foundations for how far that character is willing to go to get what they want, how much of the world they’re willing to burn to see it done. And this is where world-building could have come in handy.
As a writer, you get the final say in what information is presented to the reader and when. Reveals make world-building a bit tricky because the protagonist has to stay in the dark until the very last moment. But, as a writer, having concrete details can make it easier to incorporate little tidbits, details mentioned in passing that later prove to support the plot. The following details would have upped the stakes by establishing potential answers to the why questions.
- The General’s history. It’s revealed that he’s used magic, same as the Chancellor, to stay eternally young, but it’s unclear when he enlisted in the army. WW1? WW2? It definitely seems to be before the Civil Rights movement, just based on some of his verbiage. Did he stay in Ghizon the entire time, or did he cause trouble in the US throughout his long life? And, more relevantly, when did he start causing trouble with East Row? Rue is panicked to learn her high school has been a focal point for the General’s gang interactions, which implies there wasn’t much activity while she was there, or else she would have likely seen something too. So was it during her year-long stay in Ghizon? If yes, why wait until then?
- Ghizon’s connection to the US. This is not just a question of the General’s birthplace or his obsession with East Row. One can only assume that the General targeted East Row because that was where Aasim met Rue’s mother. But then that leads us to wonder, how did Aasim find himself in East Row? Why Texas? This may be revealed in the next book, thanks to the reveal that Julius might have latent magic of his own. Or, then again, it might just be a coincidence.
- Magic’s role in the drug campaign of Litto’s crew. It just seems a little incongruous that the General, who has magic, would use this underhanded, overly-complex plot involving drugs, gangs, and corruption to destroy East Row. Did he use his magic at all? Were any of his gang “inner circle” aware of Ghizon and the magic found there? I find it hard to believe that the General was willing to break the “no leaving Ghizon” rule but drew the line at “magic cannot be discovered by the humans” rule when he was just as willing to torture and kill a black kid for being unwilling to join his gang.
Good Old Fashioned Slytherin
A secondary example in the novel would be the Chancellor, who gets even less character development, possibly because this book seems to focus on taking down the General, leaving the Chancellor for the second book. It is worth noting, however, that the only real information we get on the Chancellor’s character is that, back before New Ghizon where there still four tribes, his tribe was known for being crafty and power-hungry.
Boiling down an entire tribe to a specific trait or two does far more harm than good. First, it is supposed to serve as character motivation for the Chancellor. However, it no more explains his motivations than Draco’s being in Slytherin explains his agreeing to help kill Dumbledore’s character in the Half-Blood Prince. Having a clear idea of what makes the Chancellor’s old tribe crafty and power-hungry would establish why the Chancellor himself is that way. For example, are resources limited, and knowing how to work the system is the only way to get what they need?
Secondly, establishing stereotypical traits for the Chancellor and his people clashes with one of the themes of the book, what with Rue speaking throughout the book about East Row raising people to be resilient, that her neighborhood isn’t filled with drug dealers and all kinds of criminal type, but rather good people who are hustling for a better life. If the protagonist is going to be fighting against the stereotypes of her people, then it is counter-intuitive to derive your antagonist’s only real character trait from another such stereotype from his own people.
Ride or Die: Character Growth
Although the antagonists of the story could have benefited from a little more world-building, Rue’s two friends from New Ghizon are well-grounded in the setting information we’re given, enough that their character arcs make a lot of sense. Bri and Luke are both from poorer families who live in concrete apartment buildings described a bit like studio apartments despite needing to house a whole family. Their way out is through magic. If Bri studies hard enough, proves herself through magic, then she can get a good job that will get her family into a better house. The same goes for her boyfriend, Luke, as a new recruit for their police-like Patrol. But in the moment of truth, when Rue needs to rely on people to save her family, Luke sells them out while Bri does the most selfless thing she can do, which is give up magic.
Luke is not written to be a bad person like the General and the Chancellor were. He was just desperate. He even tells Rue and Bri that the General ordered him to get close to Bri and Rue so he could spy on them. If he did well enough, he was guaranteed a place in the Patrol, a promotion that would offer his family the help they needed. Where Luke went wrong was in failing to realize it was much bigger than just his family. They could have made do. Rue’s whole block was in a life-or-death scenario. The Ghizoni magic tribe were literally dying off from the magic the Chancellor was stealing from them.
By contrast, Bri proved to be a real ally and friend. She started off as a goody-two-shoes for similar reasons as Luke, wrapping her entire identity, her future, in knowing how magic could improve her life. She and Rue become fast friends when Rue first arrives to Ghizon, but everything she’s willing to do to help Rue’s cause is superficial. It’s small bravery: better than nothing, yet holds little weight. When she’s told of the Ghizoni magic tribe, it makes sense for her character to be resistant, because accepting what Rue says about the tribe means that everything she knows is a lie. And she could maybe swallow the Chancellor being an evil person, but it’s difficult to acknowledge that this thing she has been working her entire life to be good at is something stolen–and at a cost, no less–from another culture. But Bri did what Luke was unable to: when given a moment to reflect, she realized it was much bigger than herself. Even better, she didn’t tell Rue she was going to get rid of her magic. She just did.
All of that is on cultivating Ghizon not as a place of riches and splendor, but a place of greed or hopelessness: the bare description of Bri’s house, her parents calling her amazing magical technology “junk” because it’s not conventionally useful, the kid that Rue stole food for despite being on the run. These establish character motivations almost without saying, or underlines those motivations when they are stated outright.
Essentially, these little bits of world-building information make the reader care about the character’s arc because it presents what the character has to lose. Without knowing that, like in the General’s and Chancellor’s case, the antagonists present themselves as one-dimensional, and, on occasion, cartoonish. The plot remains fast-paced, but there’s no emotion to it when you don’t know what the antagonist has to lose, and by extension what they are willing to do to not lose it.