Review: Blackbirds

Miriam Black knows when and how you’re going to die, but she doesn’t care.

We meet the protagonist of Chuck Wendig’s novel Blackbirds (Angry Robot, 2012) in the act of stringing a man along in a motel room while she waits for the aneurysm that she already knows is coming to take him out. She then robs his corpse and goes on with her night. Not the most sympathetic introduction.

At first blush, Miriam seems to descend from a long line of cooler-than-morality urban fantasy heroines, flipping a firm middle finger to the world while drinking and fucking her way through the seediest of truck stops and roadside bars. It’s only when a chance encounter causes her to question the truths she believed about her strange ability that she reveals the pain that comes with knowing the exact manner of death of anyone you touch.

Wendig’s plot and prose tick along with remarkable alacrity. He describes in an interview in the back of the book how it transitioned from novel to screenplay and back again, and its birthing process is clear in its punchy, cinematic language and propulsive structure.  I admire writers who can step out of the way of their story, sublimating the impulse to overwrite and letting the narrative do the work for them — a trait Wendig puts to good use here.

The plot, a basic horror/thriller story that pits Miriam against various parties who want to use her power for their own ends, entertains but is not the main draw. The real success of Blackbirds comes in watching Miriam’s evolution. The limited third-person narration puts the reader squarely in Miriam’s head for the duration, barring some occasional flashback interludes. As events tick along, her struggle with her own agency in the face of insurmountable fate forces both she and the reader deep into her psyche, bringing out hidden facets and revealing a character of keen intelligence who can no longer hide from her place in the world.

This is not to say that this is the feel-good story of the year; quite the opposite. That world Miriam struggles through is one of violence, grit, and blood. Wendig paints a scene like he’s looking at it through a cracked, dirty lens, and even sequences set during daylight hours feel like the sky must be overcast. Miriam herself is right at home there, with a jet-black sense of humor and a pessimist’s exuberance. Every moment stands on a knife-edge, sometimes very literally, and in a story about a woman who predicts deaths, there’s more than a few to go around.

There’s a great deal of suffering in Blackbirds, much of it on Miriam’s part, and some of the rest inflicted by her on others, but none of it gratuitous. Wendig believes in a world where destiny can be changed if you are willing to sacrifice, to make the hard choices. Miriam’s life before this moment has been about taking the path of least resistance, and her trip down the rockier road, the road of empathy and loyalty, is a journey worth taking with her.

Miriam will return in a sequel, Mockingbird, out on August 28th, and Blackbirds is available now at Amazon and your local bookstore. Check out a free preview from Angry Robot.

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About PKH

Patrick Hume is a screenwriter and playwright based in Los Angeles. View all posts by PKH

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