Chuck Wendig – Blackbirds

Miriam Black knows when you will die. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides.

But when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. 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.

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ is how the saying goes, but when I saw that gorgeous Joey HiFi cover for Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds I knew I had to own that book, if only for the cover. I know, how shallow, but that’s how I roll in the case of Joey’s Angry Robot covers; I also own two editions of Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland, the old one, which I read, and the new Joey HiFi-covered edition, which was published this year. So this was a book that was sold by its cover. Once I’d read the synopsis for Blackbirds though, I really got excited to read the book as well, as the idea for the book intrigued me. A psychic who can only foretell people’s deaths? That’s got to be an interesting starting point for a story! And it was, interesting that is. A good read too, though I did have some reservations while reading.

For one, I found Miriam hard to connect to; it’s not that she’s uninteresting, but she is a little unsympathetic. Once the reader gets to know her and a little of her history, her harshness, her aloofness and cynicism are more understandable and thus mostly forgivable. Still, making that connection is hard and Miriam never becomes what you might call fuzzy and cuddly; she’s sharp and prickly and curses like a trucker. Her gift is fascinating and while she comes close to telling the reader how she got the gift, we never really find out how it first manifests, even if we get an inkling as to the why. What I did like about Miriam is how she’s done running away from her ‘gift’; where she used to wear gloves so as not to inadvertently read people, she now uses it to feed herself, though she still isolates herself from humanity by being a drifter along the highways of America.

Miriam’s gift is both fascinating and scary. She can read people after skin-to-skin contact and foresee the date and manner of their death. Wendig brilliantly utilises this idea to jump start the action and to misdirect the reader. I was afraid that it might hobble the immediacy of the narrative in places, as once you know that a character will only die in forty years time from old age, you won’t have any anxiety for their safety if they get into bad situations in the story. As Miriam keeps reiterating that one of the rules of her visions is that they can’t be changed, you have to believe the visions or the whole foundation of the narrative crumbles. However, Wendig manages to avoid this hobbling effect, by showing us even Miriam has doubts when the situations become desperate enough and while she believes the visions are correct, she can’t help but think that this might be the one time she succeeds in changing them. This way there is still a sense of immediacy to the action and there are some edge-of-your-seat moments in the book.

The world of Blackbirds is rather encapsulated and a little vague in the background. The book seems to be set in a contemporary US and other than place names there isn’t much description of where the action takes place. It’s also kept to the edges of the highways or other places where people are in transit; Miriam – and consequently the narrative – never settles down in one place for long. The same goes for the rest of the cast of characters. There are limited players and other than Miriam, we don’t learn too much about the others, or rather, we learn a little about their backgrounds, but never enough to have a complete picture—arguably, the same can be said for Miriam. While this small cast helps keeping the focus tightly on Miriam’s race against the clock to save Louis, the fact that so much of their character development seems to be the part of the ice berg below the surface, also serves to keep the reader emotionally disconnected from them. Apart from Louis and Miriam, you don’t really care what happens to them, in the sense that if they get hurt, well so be it: “It is what it is.” as Miriam would say. At the same time, there are one or two bit players that kept popping back into my mind, making me wonder about what happened to them. To give Wendig credit, of all the main characters, there are only two of whom we really don’t know what happens to them, the others are all nicely squared away, some more literally than others. On the whole though, I kept wanting more from these characters, more development, more depth –or rather, a less murky depth – and more purpose. Because, other than Ashley and Ingersoll, our characters don’t really seem to have clear motivations for their actions, something that I at least struggled with, perhaps because I’m not used to that in my reading.

Despite all this, I tore through Blackbirds and couldn’t stop reading. I may not have fallen in love with her at first sight, but Miriam made for a riveting lead character and I had to find out how it would work out, because in the end I did come to care for her. The conclusion of the story is satisfying, but there are still lots of questions to be answered in the second book to feature Miriam, Mockingbird, most important of which are the why and how of her gift. I may have had my issues with Blackbirds, but I will definitely be back for more Miriam come the publication of Mockingbird, because Blackbirds is just that kind of book.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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