Book Review: BLACKBIRDS, by Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig’s BLACKBIRDS is a remarkable piece of urban fantasy. His protagonist, Miriam Black, has a gift and a curse: By touching skin on skin, she can see exactly how and when you are going to die. Presuming herself to be powerless against fate, she becomes a drifter living on cheap whiskey and superficial relationships until encountering a man whom she sees die under torture – whose last words are “Miriam?”
With that, she is involved in his life and death, no matter how hard she tries to extricate herself.
Sounds dark? It is, but without the absent nihilism that afflicts so much modern fantasy. In fact, I found it to be a story of redemption, of the triumph of human effort; although that triumph is painful and hard-won.
BLACKBIRDS is an urban fantasy, but firmly rooted in reality. Wendig lives in “Pennsyltucky” and deftly uses the region he’s familiar with. From Waffle Houses to the Pine Barrens, the landscape will be familiar and accessible to any modern American.
Its antagonists are equally realistic. Though they range from merely opportunistic to downright psychopathic, there are no vampires here, no werewolves, no angels or devils. Everyone in the book is human, and operates on human motivations such as greed, fear, or ambition. In particular, I found the character of Harriet, the housewife-hitman, both comical and chilling.
While Miriam’s “gift” sets her beyond the pale, she, too, is very human. She’s been through much before the book begins, and suffers more with every turn of the page. We learn more of her backstory throughout, in well-placed scenes that never lecture. Her life is woven into the book with a lighter touch than the hammering speed characteristic of the main story. She is a young woman from a troubled home who sees death wherever she goes and suffers for it, though she hides behind a mask of apathy and creative profanity.
That’s worth pointing out, by the way. I’m one of those who couldn’t watch DEADWOOD due to its constant cursing, and BLACKBIRDS carries plenty of its own. It didn’t bother me in Wendig’s book, however. It might be because of the novel’s modern setting, or because I was reading instead of watching – but I think it’s the fact that the swearing fit the voice and pace of the book so well.
Wendig writes in car-crash prose, swift and sharp. The sentences hook you and pull you along at a breakneck clip. There’s no time to worry about the number of blue streaks it takes to get you there, in my opinion; but I can see where it might turn a more sensitive reader away.
That same sensitivity may impact your reaction to the manifold scenes of death and torture, but see my primary note above: this is NOT a nihilistic book. Wendig isn’t gleefully dragging us into a pit. Rather he guides us, a modern Virgil, through scenes of growing darkness until allowing us to crash into a tense, sharp, and ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Mind, I won’t promise you a happy ending.
But I will call it wonderful, like the rest of this book. Highly recommended.