Book Review: Wings Unseen
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Wings Unseen by Rebecca Gomez Farrell is a complex book that clearly owes a debt towards A Song of Ice and Fire in its multi-POV structure. In my experience, YA fantasy books have a tendency to lay out the facts and expect the readers to accept them without further explanation, granting them a much faster pace than the more methodical approach of adult fantasy. This style of writing also lends itself to more abrupt emotional responses. A lot of adult fantasy books are a slow burn, particularly in the romantic arcs, but YA and this book specifically, counter that by laying out the emotional elements in a very forthright manner.
My love for the character of Vesperi may be an indication of some sort of personality flaw on my part, much like my immediate fixation on the Kingdom of Medua in comparison to the entirely more subdued and traditional fantasy land of Lansera. Lansera felt like a throwback to an early generation of fantasy stories where the good kingdom and the forces of evil where clearly delineated, even their noble king. The idea of good royals has been fairly eviscerated in contemporary fantasy so it is interesting to find it appearing here like an old friend. Too much reading in the genre has left me terribly suspicious of all the Lanserim throughout the book, constantly waiting for the Scooby Doo mask of kindness to be stripped away. This old-fashioned ideal of nobility is paired with the more modern moral attitudes of the two kingdoms, but this left it flat compared to the depth of political machinations that were at work on the other side of the border.
Medua is not a culture interested in morality. The theocracy that secretly controls that country is thoroughly Machiavellian and the denigration of women to a role of nothing more than communal property is the foundation on which their system of governance is built. Meduan society is constructed in such a way that no emotional ties can be forged, so that there can be no loyalty except to the state. It is delightfully dystopian for a fantasy book, and this is far from the only out of place element that greatly improves on the quality of Wings Unseen.
The existential threat of this story seems more suited to a contemporary thriller or horror book and it adds so much to this quasi-mystical world to have it threatened by something so unexpected. It is very much like a science-fiction story that suddenly discovered that a wizard was the one destroying spaceships.
Vesperi is one of the three central characters, while there are other points of view throughout the book, including a memorable section seen through the eyes of a carrier pigeon, it is primarily through their three viewpoints that the world is fashioned. Because Vesperi is from the “evil” kingdom of Medua she treats everything in Lansera with exactly the level of suspicion that I was feeling towards it throughout the story. The fact that she is the one granted magical powers to counter the greater evil that they are all facing is a sweet irony considering how devout the other two are to the “true religion” of the setting.
It is interesting to see a religion included in a fantasy book without any of the usual subversions being brought into play. While there is an “evil” religion in Medua it is never treated as anything more than a tool for social control. The blending of the religious and magical elements of the setting underline the reality of the Lanserim faith while also reflecting mystical beliefs from the real world.
I can imagine that there will be a strong feminist critique of this book, in particular to Vesperi’s responses to the men who are essentially abusing her, but once the culture of Medua was more thoroughly explained, it did make sense, even if it did make for some extremely uncomfortable reading.
While there are elements of Wings Unseen that do not appeal to me, in particular the use of fate as a keystone for the plot, the strength of the characters and the central mystery were enough to carry me through.