Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is one helluva yarn, and the first in the Miriam Black trilogy. If you want to conjure a miasma of human vileness with shots of blacklight humour, this is the book for you.
In essence: Blackbirds
This book is a death-fest, in a highly entertaining, twisty-turny format that keeps you slavering for more. Miriam Black is a fine character with some depth and probably more to come in the second book, Mockingbirds. She’s dark and vulnerable at the deepest levels and nails in every other discernable way.
We meet her in her classic modus operandi; not the killer, but near the dead. Or more precisely, with someone who is about to die. While they die.
Miriam sees when people are going to die. Not all people; only those she touches with skin-on-skin contact. By the end of the book, we don’t know why yet, other than it being some kind of psychic gift/curse, but we get to see any number of scenarios play out, not to mention expertly detailed actual deaths. The story arc is palpable, really clear, and the whole thing crafted like a film.
By the end of the book, you care about Miriam, you care about what happens to the people she cares about, and you’ve seen a lot of inventive deaths of mainly grotty people who appear to deserve what happens to them. A gratifying read!
It’s a travelling book, not a road trip as such, though I didn’t notice being told the reason why Miriam is on the road. The descriptions of various diners and motels – and even Miriam’s internal bewailing that she was in yet another motel – as well as the flavoursome characters of each region provide an atmosphere that is hard to shake after the story has ended.
A few notes on style
Chuck is foul-mouthed; it’s part of his brand, and if you read his blog regularly, you’ll be used to it. Otherwise start getting used to words like ‘fuckpie’, and chapter titles like ‘The Sun Can Go Fuck Itself’. The beauty of Chuck Wendig is partly in the machinegun staccato of bad-but-imaginative language. You can tell he relishes the words, especially the Anglo-Saxon four-letters. And yes, the c-word is in there. Be warned.
Wendig says that he started as a novelist and then added screenwriting to his bow, but the informal rules of popular culture scriptwriting do pervade the way this story plays out. It’s a slow balanced build-up with plenty of action and character play in each scene to keep your heart pumping, and towards the end, everything comes together – and this is excellently crafted – in a whambam climax that changes everything.
His characters are fun, and as he says early on, ‘…that’s where the devil lives, you know, right there in the goddamn details.’ The grimy details serve up a set of grotesque and distinct characters with a comicbook flourish. There’s Louis, first pitched as a ‘goddamned Frankenstein …[with a] cinder-block head; Harriet, who ‘echoes Charlie Brown – pudgy, round face with small and deeply set eyes’; and Frankie as ‘a tall drink of water with a Droopy Dog face and a Sam the Eagle nose’.
The Interludes are a smart device Wendig uses to deliver a huge amount of information. It may be a little expositional, but he keeps the drama going, and gives the reader a look at Miriam’s life through a different window.
The whole book is written in present tense – another offshoot from the screenwriting – and this gives every event such an immediate, sudden feel that it’s impossible not to get swept away in the rush of action. A great way to use the present tense.
Will I like it?
If you’re into action movies, antiheroes with hearts, and the faint whiff of comicbook, Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is going to give you about four to six hours of foul-mouthed, cynical fun.
Miriam is a character who seems to grow into herself as the book progresses. Early on, there is a feeling that she is Chuck’s idea of a female antihero, sexy and tough, but deeply vulnerable. Somehow Miriam evolves, and either you get used to her jamming so much extra information into what she says, or maybe she settles down a bit. Either way, she’s a great character, and I can’t wait to pick her up again in the next two novels.
Oh, and just so you know? Blackbirds is DRM-free, thanks to being published by Angry Robot Books.