Queer Love, Rage, and Magic Amid War: Red Skies Falling by Alex London

Twins Kylee and Brysen find themselves separated for the first time in their lives, each on either side of a world fluttering toward the knife-edge of war. Alex London’s Red Skies Falling serves as a soaring followup to the entrancing YA fantasy novel Black Wings Beating. The stakes raise enormously, the pace quickens, and ancient magic manifests in fresh, terrifying ways.

London expands on the well-developed world in his first novel. Uztar has long looked to the sky as a space of wonder and power. Theirs is a culture of falconry, an intimate connection between bird and hunter. It extends to the Hollow Tongue, the language of the birds, available only to some. The Kartami extremists, however, are fiercely determined to destroy what they perceive to be an evil relationship with birds.

Brysen always wanted to be a great falconer. He has a profound connection with his falcon, Shara, but it appears to be the more practical Kylee who has the gift of the Hollow Tongue. She’s honing her skills in the Sky Castle under the tutelage of the vicious and enigmatic Owl Mothers. She hopes to learn how to forge a powerful connection with the ghost eagle, a raptor of mythic proportions that not only has extreme physical abilities, but the capacity to influence the mind and emotions of those around it. Kylee intends to use her unwanted gift to partner with the ghost eagle and end the war. However, a creature as talon-sharp clever as the ghost eagle has its own agenda, one that any human would be foolish to assume they could predict. Kylee also finds herself embroiled in the political machinations of the Owl Mothers and the local kyrgs. Through it all, she finds something close to kinship with a rival student, Grazim, the only other person in the Sky Castle who might, albeit grudgingly, respect Kylee’s desire to serve no master but herself.

Meanwhile, Brysen, earnest and determined, is back in the Six Villages preparing for the onslaught of an attack from the Kartami. He has more motivation than ever to fight, as he’s in the midst of a deepening relationship with Jowyn, a mysterious boy raised by the Owl Mothers. Brysen gains an unexpected windfall when he discovers a secret gift of his own, strange and eerily powerful. He hatches a dangerous plan to stop the war, which brings him directly into the tents of the Kartami. Gentle Brysen, the healer, the tender, anxious boy in the beginnings of what might become love, has to ask himself if he’s willing to take a life in order to end a war. As he and Jowyn lay in wait for their chance to strike, they take up the Kartami war kites, an exercise in partnership and trust. Brysen finds a surprising amount of freedom from within the tethers of their enemies. And so the twins come to the battlefront on opposite sides, the lines of right and wrong shifting into a shimmering blur on the horizon.

The middle book in a trilogy can be a tricky one, but Red Skies Falling is strikingly successful, building on the rich story of the first and coming to an emotionally satisfying conclusion that nonetheless will leave readers clamoring for the final installment. The characters grow and darken, leaving soft parts of themselves behind, gaining new strengths—and weaknesses.

London has expertly crafted an immersive fantasy world centered on birds of prey. The premise is perhaps most effective because it wrestles with the dynamic of predator and prey, and it’s always entwined with the theme of narrative, of who gets to tell the story, which he ties in tightly with the political landscape of Uztar. Who tames who? Who holds the reins? What are you fighting for? As the fanatical Kartami make refugees out of their own Altari kin, Brysen is horrified at the willful lack of understanding from the Six Villages, even from some of his own brethren. And while Kylee endeavors to harness the power of the ghost eagle for her own purposes, she learns that the dynamic between hunter and hunted is not always a static one.

London also maintains a strong connection to the potency of language itself: its ability to shape the world and one’s place in it, not only through the Hollow Tongue but through how all the characters understand each other.

The prescient, immersive worldbuilding is an incredible feat on its own, a draw that will bring in reluctant fantasy readers and die-hards of the genre alike. The heart of the Skybound Saga, though, is the twins, and Kylee and Brysen flourish here. They have a strong and engaging sibling dynamic, but here London smartly explores how they develop when they are separated. Kylee must confront her own burgeoning desire for power, the visceral pleasure that fills her when she connects with the epic force that is the ghost eagle. London emphasizes that she has no desire for a romantic relationship—her story is centered on finding who she is when she isn’t defined by looking after her brother, and mastering this talent she never asked for. Brysen counters as a fantastic example of a softer sort of power. Of a boy who heals and loves and saves, and refuses to become cruel in the face of cruelty. Both characters defy and queer archetypes, making for a rich and resonant story as London moves between their points of view.

There is rage here, and grief. There is violence, a frustratingly unjust political system, factions too set in their ways to change despite an oncoming onslaught, and frighteningly corrupt leaders.

There is also hope. Love, and kinship. Previously hidden strength and skill—and hunger too. A desire for a better world, one worth fighting for. London knows that survival can be a triumph. That anger can be harnessed, wielded against injustice. He knows too that even when the world is ending, queer love and friendship can be a saving thing. Fierce and tender and absolutely important, and it’s nothing short of glorious to find that developing love evoked so beautifully here. Crucially, he never lets queerness itself become a point of pain for these characters. Red Skies Falling is a vindicating, visceral triumph of a second novel. I am incredibly grateful for this fresh, queer epic fantasy, and I eagerly anticipate the final installation of the Skybound Saga.

Red Skies Falling is available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Read an excerpt here.

Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.

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