Monday 7 May 2012

Book Review | Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Miriam Black knows when you will die.

Still in her early twenties, she's foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.

Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can't save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she'll have to try.

"They say that blackbirds are psychopomps. Like sparrows, they're birds that supposedly help shuttle souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead. [...] On the other hand, the genus - or is it species? I always get them mixed up - of the common blackbird is Turdus, which, of course, has the word 'turd' in it. Not ideal."
Indeed not. But in truth, Miriam Black doesn't much mind the symbolic significance of the blackbirds that seem to follow her wherever she goes. She's too busy trying to get by. And for her, the getting by... well, it ain't particularly pretty. On a good day all it amounts to is "another motel. Another fuck. Another cigarette. Circles and circles, the spinning snake, the endless carousel," and I'm afraid the powers that be don't have a great many good days in store for our cruel and unusual protagonist.

Miriam has a messed up relationship with fate in any case. That's because every time she touches someone for the first time, skin to skin that is, she sees how they'll die. Their last moments, be they horrid or heartbreaking, play out before her; an unstoppable snuff film in her mind's eye.

Of course, "this thing? It's got rules." I won't bore you with every one, but here's the kicker, parsed per Miriam's inimitable wisdom:
"Death isn't always obvious, you know - a guy clutches his head and falls over, could be a lot of things. But I know what it is. I know if it's a brain tumor or a blood clot or a bumblebee that's burrowed its way into his cerebral cortex.

"I also know when. Year, day, hour, minute, second. It's a red pushpin stuck in the great timeline of the universe, and I can see it. The pushpin I can't see, oddly, is where. The location remains a mystery. Outside visual cues, of course. I see a chick's head explode in the parking lot of a McDonald's with street signs at the corner of Asshole Boulevard and Shitbird Lane and she's wearing a 'Don't Mess with Texas' T-shirt, then I can use my Sherlock Holmesian deductive reasoning to figure out that pesky riddle. Or I just use Google. I fucking love Google."
Would that one could Google the specifics of how Miriam came into her gruesome gift - Blackbirds certainly isn't the type to kiss and tell - but though we might not know how she earned it, except that she did, we're well aware of what she's done with it... in recent years at least. She's become, of all things, a sort of supernatural con artist: she's gotten into the habit of haunting the almost-dead in order to rob them of all their worldly possessions when they do die, as per Miriam's visions. The better, presumably, to bankroll the next motel. The next fuck. The next cigarette.

It's a life, right?

Be that as it may, or may not, life is about to get a whole lot harder for our cocksure evildoer, because when she grasps the hand of a decent man - a truck driver who stops to offer her a lift - as ever, she sees how he'll meet his maker... but his is an horrendous end, and somehow, Miriam is complicit in it; Louis' last word is her name, no less.

Reeling from this, Miriam seeks solace in the arms of an asshole - not to put too fine a point on it - but Ashley is running away from something hellish himself, for his own reasons, and soon (so soon) they find themselves face to face with fate, vis-à-vis the lighthouse where poor Louis is destined to leave the land of the living.

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig - who cut his teeth on last year's undead escapade Double Dead - is not a long novel, or a short one by urban fantasy standards... which is what Blackbirds is, in case you were wondering. In fact, given that, I dare say it's the perfect length. Wendig's inherently questionable heroine is neither gone too soon nor in danger of overstaying her welcome: the reader spends just enough time with Miriam to get past her malfeasant exterior, but not so long as to truly turn one's stomach.

To be sure, at no point is she some pretty picture. She curses like a sailor - so her mother has always said, and her mother tells it true - and she eats like a lumberjack. Meanwhile Miriam has sex so often "that it's a hobby for her like scrapbooking or collecting baseball cards is for other people." And it hardly bears saying that what she does on a day-to-day basis, for no better reason than money, is despicable.

On the other hand, there's something slyly seductive about her as a character, something almost perversely appealing that stops just short of coming across as tired or offensive... though here some other critics might disagree with me. I for one found that though Miriam is foul-mouthed and foul-minded to certain extent, she's also incredibly resourceful, strong-willed and hard-skinned. She's smart, self-aware and witty to a Whedonesque degree. And she takes no pleasure in the terrible things she does, except insofar as she's the type to laugh about the crappy stuff rather than cry.

Anyway, what with Blackbirds' inexorable, practically irresistible pace, one doesn't often have the chance to question Miriam's motivations. Occasional flashbacks give us a glimpse of her horrid history, but beyond these the action simply doesn't stop. Reading Blackbirds is a brief, breathless, and I think brilliant experience. The narrative is simplistic, I suppose, and not without a few obvious plot holes, but by and large it's aptly handled; instead, this book's complexity comes from questions of character that there are no right or wrong answers to, however many dicks there are in the picture. In the end, figuring out Miriam is its own reward.

And oh, what spoils! Chuck Wendig was one to watch beforehand, but with this twisted little treat he cements an already-estimable reputation. Blackbirds is dirty, filthy, nasty... fantastic. If you can stand the sight of some awfully ugly stuff, you're exceedingly likely to love it.

For my part, I already have my pre-order in for Mockingbird, which is to say the next chapter of Miriam's miserable existence. Roll on August.


by Chuck Wendig

UK Publication: May 2012, Angry Robot Books
US Publication: April 2012, Angry Robot Books

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  1. I absolutely loved this one! Carpet Noodle! Terrifyingly Brilliant :)

  2. Can't flippin' give this one a read. "Dirty, filthy, nasty...fantastic" sounds just about awesome. ^_^

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