Carpet noodle: Just one of the many intriguing things about Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, the first installment in his new Miriam Black series.
Conceited? Why, yes, yes it is
The main premise of this novel is captivating as all Hell. Capital H. The main character, Miriam Black, has visions of people’s deaths in vivid, excruciatingly gruesome detail, down to the date, time, and cause of dying. And Miriam is always right. She should know. She’s tried to screw with fate—and failed miserably.
This idea that things are set in stone and immutable puts an entirely different focus on some of the novel. In a usual novel, the end is what we look forward to, the surprise, the climax of emotion one has while reading. But what happens when the ending is given away in critical detail within the first forty pages of the novel?
The answer: lots of interesting things.
I started focusing on the actual journey of the character more than I normally would (which is saying something, for me), because knowing the outcome makes a difference. I’m usually trying to puzzle out where the plot is going based on the action up to the point where I’ve read at any given moment, but with Blackbirds, I was focusing more on the detailed steps in between—what path will character A take to point XYZ? It really just puts a different lens on things—something not better or worse, really, but just… different. And it works for Wendig, and works well.
Watch your step in the dark
Blackbirds is easily one of the darkest urban fantasies I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. In fact, it’s right up there with Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces novels in scope, but on a different spectrum. However, where the Twenty Palaces novels aren’t completely pitch-dark, Blackbirds has an all-around dark atmosphere—an atmosphere filled with guilt, regrets, depression, and a distinct lack of morals. Oh, and profanity. Oh, the profanity. The profanity abounds in this novel; this is not for persons of weak mental constitutions. In fact, some of the profanity gets so creative that I would call it gorgeous. The gorgeous, gorgeous profanity.
The majority of the characters are also a reflection of the atmosphere. Miriam herself is one of the more complex protagonists I’ve seen in the first book of a new series. She is a completely human character with numerous flaws, guilts, fears, emotions she tries to squash, consequences for her actions, and the ability to make me frustrated with her every other chapter for one thing or another. It’s like, “Really, girl? WHY—I—dammit, already!” But beyond all of that, she is a completely unique protagonist within the urban fantasy genre—there is not a single other protagonist I’ve read about or heard of that goes to such levels of obscenity and, well, barbarism. This is such a Big Thing™ that I suspect it will either make or break the novel for a reader.
However, if Miriam’s character is dark on par with dark chocolate—say, 60-70% cocoa—the primary antagonists are running 92-96% cocoa. These people are just downright nasty, cruel, and all sorts of screwed-up. “Psycho” is a term that fits them like a glove. They aren’t without their entertaining moments (albeit few of those), but I definitely found myself a little overwhelmed with their oozing nastiness; Wendig pushed their stereotypes just a bit too hard, too often.
Looks like a regular novel, feels like a regular novel…
…but open up its guts, and you get something you don’t see everyday. The internal structure of this novel is quite different from your straightforward story-goes-from-point-A-to-point-Z setup. Interspersed every few chapters of story are interview chapters of an interview between Miriam and a college student. These interview sequences are used by Wendig to fill in a lot of Miriam’s history as well as the influences in her life. It was an interesting way to approach things, and one that resonated well with me, as the interview chapters didn’t come too close together or too far apart, but rather broke the narrative up just enough to continually pique my curiosity and hold it hostage.
Another unusual aspect of Blackbirds is its seeming lack of a magic or supernatural system. However, that isn’t the case; Wendig is subtlety introducing us to the underpinnings of the system. In addition to Miriam’s ability to see people’s deaths, psychics are confirmed to be legit—some of them, anyway. These various little things help prep Wendig’s audience for more to come in the sequel, due out in September—more, as he promised in a review at the end of Blackbirds.
Why should you read this book?
Miriam Black’s story is a captivating story, one I found difficult to put down. Not only that, but it is largely original in scope, from premise to internal structure. If you’re looking for an author who isn’t afraid to go balls-to-the-wall with their story, look no further. With near-surgical, intoxicant-fueled precision, Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds cuts directly to where it hurts the very most and yet keeps you coming back for more, a stellar example of what truly dark and personal urban fantasy should be.