Welcome to day 3 of the Black Wings Beating Blog Tour!
Today is release day which everyone should go out and buy Black Wings Beating if you haven’t preordered it already!
Black Wings Beating is the first in new fantasy falconer series by Alex London known as The Skybound Saga. I was fortunate enough to pick Alex’s brain about this action packed, high stakes novel which follows twins Brysen and Kylee’s journey through treacherous mountains in search of the elusive Ghost Eagle.
What was the initially inspired you to write this story? We don’t see a lot of YA fantasy using birds of prey as their animal companion.
It began with falconry, and quickly became about so much more.
Falconry is an ancient practice that just about every culture on earth has invented at some point, where a person trains a killer bird to fly from their fist, hunt for them, and then, against all bird of prey instinct, surrender what they’ve killed. In early 2016, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It is the art of managing another being’s longing, keeping them just hungry enough to hunt for you.
To me, it was an apt metaphor for my first love.
A bird of prey isn’t like a dog; they can’t love a person the way a person can love them. Though a falcon learns to associate their tamer’s fist with food, they can and do turn on them at any time. They are alien minds with powerful talons and razor-sharp beaks, and as much time and care as a falconer pours into one, there comes this moment when they launch from the fist to the sky that the falconer simply has to trust that all will be okay. It isn’t always. Sometimes, that’s when the falcon leaves forever. A falconer can put years of care and thousands of dollars into the training of a falcon and have that falcon one day simply sky out, gone for reasons that they might never know or understand.
When I developed my first really intense crush on another guy–one of the lacrosse players at my high school–I found myself coming up with all sorts of excuses to be around him. I tried to be present without being noticed, lest he fly off like a nervous bird, or attack. This is just how a falconer gets a bird used to them. They try to be present but invisible. Like a captured wild hawk, my lax guy could have easily disappeared into the popular kids group if I made myself too visible. He also could have torn me limb from limb. The closer I got to him, the more dangerous it felt, but also the more thrilling. For a brief time, I felt like we’d really bonded, and I might’ve even gotten to nerve to tell him how I felt, but one day, he just pulled away, cut himself off from me, and was gone. No matter how much I longed to be around him, his desire was not my desire, and however well I thought I knew his mind, I had no idea what went on behind his eyes.
So for me, the idea of a falconer is the same as a crush, longing for a creature from a different sky, who might perch with you awhile, but can never belong to you.
I wanted to explore that, but, in doing research, discovered so much cool stuff about birds of prey and about the cultures of falconry, that it seemed wild to me no one had made falconry central to a fantasy world. I didn’t want to just write killer birds as a metaphor for longing. I wanted to write a kick-ass world filled with actual kick-ass killer birds, sacred, deadly, awe-inspiring predators.
When we met at BEA I briefly mentioned your cover reminded me of The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock, which I studied in college. Did the film play a part when writing Black Wings Beating?
It didn’t, but I think the film and the book came from a similar place, that primal human fascination we have with these creatures who soar above us, whose eyes hold an intelligence so unlike our own, and how they command the sky in a way we never will.
Can you talk about the research you did for this book? What was that like working with Master Falconer Mike Dupuy?
Well, because I’m a nerd, my research started in books. I read Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk and TH White’s The Goshawk. Then I got into more scientific books about birds of prey and more niche stuff about falconers and falconry. Eventually, I reached out to Mike Dupuy who let me come out to his farm, answered my endless questions, showed me his falconry gear, introduced me to his impressive cast of birds of prey …and then took me out to fly one of his birds (the tamest one…). My agent and I took turns tossing the hawk from our gloves into the sky, then calling it back to our fists again to let it from our hands. It was a sublime experience. Birds of prey are very skilled killers, very fast, but also so light and delicate and sensitive. No sudden movements around them or they could fly off. I love that about them: the only way to unleash their violence is through deep care, gentleness, and rapt attention. Deep care, gentleness, and rapt attention is also a pretty apt description of love.
Black Wings Beating is the first book of yours I read. I hadn’t realized not only do you write YA, but you’ve also written several picture books, middle grade, and adult. How does your writing process differ for each age group?
It really doesn’t differ that much, except with picture books. They are an entirely different thing. I write what I hope is a compelling story and if the concerns, subject, and voice is authentic for a teen, then it will find its way to being a YA novel. The same is true for middle grade. The subjects and content and tone of what feels true and immediate and engaging for an 11 year old are going to be different than what compels a YA reader. Of course, in the revision process for middle grade, I think more about sentence structure, vocabulary, and context that they’ll bring to the story. I have to be mindful of that stuff, but any writer aware of their audience will be mindful of that stuff anyway.
As twins, Brysen and Kylee are complete opposites with very different views of what it means to do the right thing for the right reasons. Brysen does things for himself , whereas Kylee tries to shoulder everything for her family. How did you develop these characters and how do Brysen and Kylee reflect who you are?
They came to me quite whole. While the details of their lives could not be more different from my own, I drew much of their psychological makeup from myself. Brysen’s struggles with depression and anxiety are much like my own. His longing for approval and trying to measure up to some arbitrary standard are also, sadly, much my own issues too. Kylee, on the other hand, is waaaaaay more resourceful and generous of spirit than I am! But her feelings of responsibility, her sense that she has to be the one to solve everything all the time…I definitely have that instinct, though I don’t act on it quite as intensely as she does.
Mostly, I hope, these two characters are their own people though, with their own unique wants and flaws. It’s my job as the writer to press against those wants and those flaws and hope something exciting, honest, and powerful comes out of it. My own issues are more like logs thrown into the bonfire of these characters. If it catches, the flames are entirely their own.
Can you talk a bit about the Uztari, Altari, and, Kartami and their different beliefs about bird training and where that stems from?
The Uztari both revere birds of prey and use them as the basis for their culture and economy. They are, in the language I invented for them, “bound to the sky.” Everything in their world centers around or stems from the worship, training, or trading in birds of prey. The Altari—”mountain bound”—are exiles from the mountains, banned by their own faith and Uztari law from training birds of prey. They are excluded from the dominant culture and have invented systems for themselves that explain it. They loathe the Uztari who exile them, but of course, no faith is uniform, and there are Altari who make compromises. Lastly, the Kartami —“the shards”—are fanatics whose goal is eliminate the birds of prey, the falconers, and all who collaborate with them. They see themselves as the only true faith of the world in which this story is set, and they are merciless in enforcing their beliefs as they conquer territory. Of course, there is more going on with them than it might at first seem. The distinctions between the three groups are also not quite what they seem…
The cover reminds me of a specific scene in the novel in the woods. Also I didn’t notice all 4 character silhouettes until recently. Did you have any input in the cover process?
I’m obsessed with this cover! The designer, Elizabeth Clark, did an amazing job! They showed me drafts and I got to give a few notes but really, this was the creative team at Macmillan who took the book and flew with it. I love what they did and I get what to see what they come up with for the rest of the trilogy!
If you were a falconer in your own world, which bird of prey would you choose?
Oh, that’s a tough one! They’re like Pokemon—I wanna train them all! But, I guess I’d choose between an owl—because they fly silently!—or a goshawk, like Brysen’s. They have a reputation for being difficult, moody, and vicious, but I think they’re beautiful and intelligent and fascinating and I feel like I’d rather tame a complicated bird who can astonish me, than a more predictable one who will never give me any trouble. I suppose it’s a lot like romance that way too.
Black Wings Beating
The people of Uztar have long looked to the sky with hope and wonder. Nothing in their world is more revered than the birds of prey and no one more honored than the falconers who call them to their fists.
Brysen strives to be a great falconer―while his twin sister, Kylee, rejects her ancient gifts for the sport and wishes to be free of falconry. She’s nearly made it out, too, but a war is rolling toward their home in the Six Villages, and no bird or falconer will be safe.
Together the twins must journey into the treacherous mountains to trap the Ghost Eagle, the greatest of the Uztari birds and a solitary killer. Brysen goes for the boy he loves and the glory he’s long craved, and Kylee to atone for her past and to protect her brother’s future. But both are hunted by those who seek one thing: power.
In this first young-adult fantasy novel in a trilogy, Alex London launches a soaring saga about the memories that haunt us, the histories that hunt us, and the bonds of blood between us.
Alex London is the beloved author of the middle-grade series, Tides of War, Dog Tags, and The Wild Ones. His young-adult novel Proxy, was an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and was included in their 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the TAYSHAS Reading List selection, among many other state reading lists. He lives in Philadelphia.
Many thanks to Morgan at Macmillan for organizing this and a big thank you to Alex for answering all my questions!
Be sure to check out the rest of the blog tour:
9/23 Here’s to Happy Endings – Review
9/24 It’s Jane Lindsey – Review
9/24 Book Whit – Review
9/24 YA Biblophile – Review
9/25 Christine Manzari – Instagram Post
9/25 Live Love Read – Interview
9/26 One Way or an Author – Fan Art
9/26 Fiction Fare – Review
9/27 Arctic Books – Moodboard
9/27 The Adeventures of Cecelia Bedelia – Review
9/28 Bookish Connoisseur – Review
9/28 Reader Rewind – Review
9/29 thebumblegirl – Review