Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig’s fantastical first Miriam Black novel, opened with a scene that made my eyes go wide and then stick to the pages like a starved dog with a side of meat. It pulled me along, chapter by hectic chapter, leaving me panting and glad that I had found out about his books when he had already published a sequel. Mockingbird also opens with a bang, albeit an understated one compared to the shock value that Blackbirds achieves. That’s the thing about giving your protagonist such a limited power in an urban fantasy series and building your story on it. Whereas Harry Dresden and Atticus O’Sullivan have a versatile skill set, a varied pantheon of enemies, and oodles of lore to draw on, Wendig is crafting a fairly unique fantasy. Keeping it from becoming routine or formulaic is a huge obstacle that Mockingbird faces, but it manages to dodge it, all the while improving on the strong pacing, dialogue, and atmosphere of the first novel. He does, however, draw from folklore and common mythological images of birds, lending the series its own unique tone that distinguishes itself from the slew of detective stories that the genre is known for.
The basic premise of the series is that Miriam Black, the protagonist, can see when and how one dies with a simple skin-on-skin touch. “See” may suggest more distance than touch, but Miriam experiences each each death viscerally, in brutal and colorful ways. Every clogged artery, bloated lung, and frying brain cell runs rampant across the page, drawing the reader not further from the last moments, but closer. Death is inevitable, as Miriam has learned that time and time again. She’s seen people die who ignored her or die because they paid attention, but this time, she has an edge and is out to keep death from taking its due.
A genre-busting and profane ride
Calling Mockingbird urban fantasy, however, is not entirely accurate. The series blends urban fantasy (though it doesn’t spend much time in big cities) with horror, comedy (albeit extremely dark comedy), and even touches of romance and happiness—only touches, as the series doles out genuinely happy moments with all the generosity of Ebenezer Scrooge. Then there is the slew of black humor that makes you laugh and feel a little guilty about laughing (which makes it a backhanded happy moment in hindsight). Blackbirds itself was messed up in all the best ways, but Mockingbird takes it up to eleven. Much about the book is reminiscent of the first, only bigger, bloodier, and bawdier. Chuck Wendig is not just a writer, he’s a cursesmith. This was addressed in Ranting Dragon’s review of Blackbirds, but the sentiment remains. The characters, Miriam in particular, curse with such prolixity that they could shame sailors and make rappers weep. It’s something that I mention because, while I find it an enhancing factor, others do not always share my opinion on creative profanity as a prospective academic field.
A plot that reveals its depths bit by bit
The plot has a straightforward progression for a sequel. Protagonist is living the after-effects of first novel. Protagonist gets put back into an exciting situation. Twists. Action. More twists. More horrifying action. Conclusion. This is by no means a criticism within the context of the story as a whole. The bones of the plot let the reader keep up with the blinding pace of the book, letting the details and the meat of the story sell it rather than the tropes themselves.
Mockingbird, as I mentioned, has more than a touch of horror to it. The antagonists aren’t just villains, they’re plain bug-out creepy. Chuck Wendig ramps up the darkness from Blackbirds, all the while retaining his mad sense of humor that is nothing short of spectacular. It balances the two tones perfectly, or as near to it as I can tell.
A unique urban fantasy with minimal fantastical elements
The fantastical world building of Blackbirds was sparse, showing us Miriam and her singular magical ability while hinting at more. In Mockingbird we get more, but not much more. Things get a lot weirder a lot faster, but the fantasy elements are very much in the cracks and shadows of this world, rather than blasting holes in buildings and draining homeless people of their blood in alleyways. Wendig slips back and forth between settings smoothly, never wasting time but always keeping the reader clear as to what is happening, where it’s happening, and who is in the scene.
Gripping and nuanced characters
The book doesn’t skimp on the raw emotion and character development that can often get lost in urban fantasy. First person novels, by and large the staple of the subgenre, are typically focused outwards, whereas third person novels, such as Mockingbird, can unflinchingly focus inwards. Miriam grows as a character, though whether it is for better or worse is mostly left up to the reader to decide.
Miriam might be one of my favorite protagonists I’ve ever read. She’s vulgar, somewhat masochistic, completely irreverent, and has a propensity for turning a situation on its head. She’s not really a badass in the sense that wizards, warriors, and werewolves are, but she’s got grit and a determination that fuels the book’s pacing and plot.
Why should you read this book?
Chuck Wendig’s Mockingbird is a fast-paced and horrific urban fantasy with sharp dialogue, nuanced characters, and an original voice in a glutted genre. Wendig grabs you by the collar then throws you down a set of literary stairs and leaves you begging for more. It’s the kind of story that looks almost familiar on the face of it, but the details and quality of Wendig’s writing sets it apart.