All of Us With Wings, Michelle Ruiz Keil (Soho Teen 978-1-64129-034-0, $18.99, 360pp, hc) June 2019.
All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil is a love letter to San Francisco in the late 1980s that includes a combustible love affair, a forthright coming-of-age tale (for multiple characters), and a vengeance-fueled subplot that incorporates elements of magic realism. The plot is largely straightforward, but the emotional conflicts are some of the most complex I have ever encountered in YA fiction. Take some Francisca Lia Block, combine it with Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, and blend in author Michelle Ruiz Keil’s unique take on music and memory, and you will find the country where All of Us with Wings resides. It has been days since I turned the last page, but I can’t stop thinking about this novel; it’s gorgeous and ugly, a crystalline literary achievement that demands care and courage while reading.
First up, the trigger warning. Throughout the novel there is a threat looming from the past that 17-year-old protagonist Xochi has carried so heavily that it finally prompts powerful magical intervention. The event that Xochi cannot outrun involves a sexual assault at a time of great personal crisis. Readers must be prepared for this revelation, which Keil handles very effectively, as it is both emotionally riveting and deeply disturbing. Keil doesn’t take anything lightly in this novel and readers wary of this dark road should proceed with caution.
Having said that, Xochi’s story is stunning. A runaway who is getting down to her last saved dollars, she meets wise-beyond-her-years preteen Pallas at the aquarium and is invited back to her family’s Victorian, where she discovers a rock-and-roll paradise. Pallas is the daughter of two band members who have long ceased to be romantically involved. The entire group lives together in a bohemian pile of love and mutual respect that is enormously appealing to read about. Xochi moves from visitor to governess, integrating herself into the household and falling hard for the glamorous life that is equal parts wild parties and cozy family dinners. One night, in a fit of gleeful abandon, she and Pallas engage in a fanciful but apparently powerful magical ritual that, unbeknownst to them, calls forth two ancient creatures determined to enact revenge for the great wrong committed against Xochi. As the reverberations of the magic stream out across San Francisco, Xochi finds herself dealing with a problem closer to home: an overwhelming attraction to Pallas’s father that appears to be mutual. Their age difference (just over a decade) is a big issue that everyone in the house, especially Pallas, addresses in their own way. Keil doesn’t dance around the many complications at play here, or all of the emotions that must be faced. While all that drama is happening, mysterious things continue to unfold in the city, and Xochi’s past flies into her present with a force that cannot be stopped.
Michelle Ruiz Keil has done a masterful job of blending the harshest of realities with a faerie-like magic that makes every bit of this novel (even the wry, all-knowing cat who meanders in and out of the narrative) touching and believable. This is a novel about music and performance, salvation, resurrection, and the damning of the dangerous. There is a lot of love for San Francisco, smart girls, bookstores, and the sort of happy ending that is not what you expect but entirely what you want. Xochi grew up fast for all the worst reasons, but she comes into her own through sheer force of joyful will. Michelle Ruiz Keil has crafted something of astonishing radiance with All of Us with Wings; it’s not always easy or pretty, but it’s a novel with real staying power that will reward all who succumb to its magic.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2019 issue of Locus.
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