My love for Chuck Wendig is a new-fangled thing. It sparkles like a freshly minted coin. On the heels of reading his excellent new novel The Blue Blazes and the blast I had interviewing him not long after the review went live, I snatched up a copy of the first of the Miriam Black novels, Blackbirds with a promise to not crack the cover until I'd whittled down the books waiting in my Netgalley account. But Miriam Black just kept staring at me from the nightstand, whispering "You know you want to.." in my ear, night after night. I did a fine job of resisting until one night about a week ago, when I decided I'd just take a look at the first chapter. Big mistake. Miriam Black had me hooked by the lip by page five.
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.
Blackbirds is vintage Wendig in every way. The novel feels like the bastard child of Tarantino's True Romance and Stephen King's The Dead Zone; an unflinchingly brutal road trip, disturbingly familiar underneath its otherworldly strangeness. This is a lushly profane novel with characters careening off one another in a twisted violent ballet of their own violence and vulnerability. If you came to the table thinking this is something akin to Mercy Thompson or Sookie Stackhouse, you'd better step slowly away from Miriam Black and try not to make any sudden movements. Psychic talent aside, Black has as much in common with Sookie Stackhouse as Amy Winehouse has with Annette Funicello. And that's the twisted genius of Wendig at work.
Miriam Black carries the novel on her weary cocksure shoulders, swearing like a sailor as she chain smokes her way through the narrative. Describing Wendig's protagonist in such simple terms may give a false impression though. Black is far more than that caricature allows. With an upbringing eerily similar to that of Carrie White, from the King novel that bears her name, Miriam reacts to series of traumas that leave her with a burden that removes the comfort of human touch and saddles her with a knowledge that is certain to haunt her. Knowing the intimate moments of death of any person she touches changes her into a tragic hero, a broken and defiant figure trying desperately to survive in a world filled with solitude and the ever present pall of mortality. And it's that vulnerability and Black's defiance of her 'curse' that makes her such a compelling protagonist, dragging readers in her wake full of hope that she'll find away to cope with the brutality of her circumstances with nothing more than bad attitude and a flea market butterfly knife.
Wendig does an excellent job grounding Miriam's tale with an atmosphere perfectly suited to the particular brand of story he's shilling. Miriam ricochets along a snarled chain of abandoned warehouses, grimy roadside hotels, murder scenes, and out of the way kill rooms. There is a stark discomforting familiarity to these locales, like a trash choked gutter best turned away from lest you stare too long and see something moving in the offal. And the other characters that populate this landscape are just as disconcerting, broken, damaged and often deranged, willing victims of their own psychology. No character is left without pathos, even if it's only by the smallest scrap. Some are horrifyng in their brutality, others heartbreakingly sympathetic as they are swept along in the crazed current of Miriam Black, twenty-something harbinger of death. I dare to say that at least one of these characters will live in the mind of any reader long after the final page is turned.
The action sequences in Blackbirds are a far cry from the bombastic gleeful slug fests that I loved so much in The Blue Blazes, but Wendig still knocks it out of the park in a completely different direction. The violence is matter of fact, unapologetic, and sickeningly brutal in the way only the mentally damaged and dispossessed can be. There is a loosening of social mores and inhibitions in the trailer park, truck stop, and roadkill strewn highways of the Miriam's stomping grounds, and it permeates the easy violence with it's casual indifference until Wendig turns up the volume and then the horror of human cruelty stuns you like an axe handle between the eyes.
In conclusion, I cannot recommend Blackbirds enough. Fans of The Blue Blazes will find just enough of Wendig's unmistakable voice to feel comfortable while ride along with the unforgettable Miriam Black as she smokes, curses and rages her way into the dark and warm center of their hearts. I'll be keeping my newly acquired copy of Mockingbird in a drawer so I can get some other reading done.