Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig – review

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Publisher: Angry Robot Books

UK – ISBN 9780857662293

US/CAN – ISBN 9780857662309

eBook – ePub ISBN 9780857662316

Blackbirds is a novel by notorious internet pottymouth, Chuck Wendig. Chuck’s online writing advice and sheer volume of bloggery is quite impressive and I was slightly dubious about wading into his actual fiction for the first time. I really wanted to like it, but wasn’t sure if I would. I needn’t have worried.

The story follows ballsy, attitude-ridden, hardass, Miriam Black, who has the power to know, from a single skin-on-skin touch, when a person will die. She’ll see in graphic detail, just once, the first time she touches a person, exactly how that person will shuffle off. She’s never wrong and she can’t change anything that happens. What she can do is make notes about the people who are going to cark it and be sure she’s nearby at the time to loot the corpse. That’s how she makes a living. Pretty dark stuff.

But when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered just as he seems to spot her behind the killer. Miriam knows from experience she can’t save him, but if she’s there as he’s murdered, she’d better try, in order to save herself if nothing else.

Wendig delivers this story like shotgun blast after shotgun blast of action and smartmouthed dialogue. The characters, for the most part, are excellent. Miriam is a very well-conceived invention, a real basketcase, and Wendig manages her well. There are occasions when she becomes something of a parody of herself, which is unfortunate, but it happens rarely. The bad guys on the trail are quite delicious, a nice set of villains, but I would have liked to see them a little more explained. A bit more about their stories would be good. We get a solid backstory on one of them, but very little on the others.

Sadly, though, I felt that Louis’s character was a bit underdone. He’s a dishrag, a walk-over, and that makes him a bit two-dimensional. He’s also incredibly forgiving, especially right near the end, but I won’t give things away here. This, however, is a small gripe.

The deaths Miriam sees are many and varied, with some truly inspired concepts delivered by Wendig. It would seem to me that there would be more mundane deaths of people simply lying unconscious in bed, then the breathing stops. Wendig shows us more variety – an old woman who falls on the ice and has a last cigarette while hypothermia takes her away, for example, or a woman who narrowly avoids crashing her car only to be wiped out by a speeding truck. It’s terribly black and grim, but it is highly entertaining stuff. Wendig’s humour suffuses everything and he collects absurdity and indignity along with very real thoughts on life and existence.

I consumed this book in two short sittings. The writing is simply top-notch, fast and clever and real. Wendig is a master of the metaphor and simile, with some truly great lines in this that’ll keep coming back to you. On a couple of occasions he used the same metaphor twice and that’s a shame, because that always kills a great turn of phrase, but this book is littered with them, so we can forgive him.

I thoroughly enjoyed every page of this book. Dark, thoroughly gory in places, but also thoughtful and complete. The only thing missing was the end of Miriam’s story about her genesis and that really bugs me. I can only assume we’ll learn more in future books. (Or it’s entirely possible I missed it!) Mockingbird is the sequel, and that’s out now, so I’ll be sure to read it soon.

Blackbirds is the kind of book that draws out all those old, cliched pulp adjectives – noirish, raw, gritty, bold, hard-boiled, visceral. It deserves all those medals. This is punchy, powerful, high-octane stuff built around great humour and sardonic observations of life. Balls-out, razor-sharp storytelling – I thoroughly recommend it.