Hisses and Wings makes you want to believe in magic. It draws on a long line of urban fantasy stories in which fae/immortal beings come to Earth and live among humans, mixing to different degrees. This story brings to mind the music magic of Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. In the ways that it invokes a lost history and unknown number of separate but magical races it evokes the wild and untamed world-building of N.K. Jemisin’s Kingdom of Gods.
I enjoyed this story for the feelings it conjured, the shared lore it participates in. It leaves the reader with more questions than answers and a lot to ponder. On second read I found compelling themes—the binding nature of immortality, what it means for immortal creatures to approach mortality, and the true meaning of redemption; what happens when music becomes a contract; what can happen to even magical creatures when their music is made tangible—when their expression of magic is in their wings, or is a creature of their body; the relationship between wishing and willing.
I’d like to digress a bit and explore this idea of magic a bit more. On a superficial level, everything is there to make this story a great exploration of all those themes I just mentioned. We are given a fair amount of information about Janet, about Diago and the rest of the Nephilim, to understand why the story moves in the direction it does and ends the way it does. But. In lieu of description and adverbial phrases, I’d have expected a starkness to the parts of the story in which Janet appears. I want her sorrow at the losses the Tufa have discovered to be palpable. And I want a fire to burn—bright as the bonfire they light—when the Nephilim are given description and thoughts. I understand that Janet is intelligent and possesses a reckless ability to charm people when she needs to, but I never got to see that one moment in the story when her personality and motivations are given light.
The authors, I would wager, had all these ideas and more when they devised this story. They knew what they wanted to accomplish and have begun to do it. The plot moves smoothly thanks to a serviceable narrative style and pacing, and attention to details like local dialect and history; each setting feels firmly placed in time and space. Where the prose shone, of course, was in descriptions of music. Understanding, among characters, is shaped through the music they create together. I could have wished, though, that this power was exploited more by the authors.
I waited for the “aha” moment, but though the authors circled around it they never quite hit on, for me, what was at the heart of the story’s tension; they never quite pushed it far enough for me to feel satisfied with the ending. Certainly, though, I look forward to more stories in this cycle, as it holds great potential for storytelling.