Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Blackbirds" by Chuck Wendig-- Brash and Brilliant

When you look at a cover for a book like Blackbirds you think you're going to get something in keeping with the ethereal image; but Chuck Wendig offers something else entirely-- and that's not a bad thing at all.

Miriam Black can see a person's death whenever she makes skin-to-skin contact: she knows the exact moment and circumstances and sees it all with disturbing clarity. Miriam has adapted to her strange life by becoming a scavenger of the dead. Knowing when someone will die, alone, doesn't provide Miriam with a living much beyond subsistence level, but it enables her to drift along the margins of society without having to interact with people beyond a superficial level-- which is just how Miriam likes it.

Miriam knows that interference with fate is not an option-- she's tried to help people in the past but that only seemed to cement the final outcome. But when Miriam shakes hands with Louis Darling and sees that he will die in 30 days, while calling her name, she realizes that fate might be choosing to involve her this time around.

I first became interested in "Blackbirds" because of its evocative cover, so beautifully done by Joey Hi-Fi, and I had the expectation that Miriam would have a dreamy way of looking at the world as one of those people who accepts their life with calm stoicism. But Miriam is anything but complacent and that fact is made clear right away as she springs to life, full of piss and vinegar, in all of her chain-smoking, swearing glory.

Miriam is a reflection of the world she inhabits. Any casual contact with another person brings visions of death that can be as benign as a heart attack or as graphic as a gunshot to the head. There's no censor to spare Miriam from the gory details and she uses her abrasive manner to shield herself from life's harsh realities. But the usual strategies she employs to keep her contact with others to an absolute minimum are upended when she meets Louis. It isn't just the vision of his death, or her involvement, that unsettles Miriam but also the unexpected kindness Louis shows her when they meet. So it's especially tragic when Miriam is unwillingly pulled into a cruel con targeting Louis that further deepens her frustration over her inability to change his destiny.

Miriam is one of the best characters I've encountered in modern fiction. She's someone who should be fairly unsympathetic thanks to the nearly-constant stream of profanity that comes out of her mouth, but there is so much more to Miriam than a few f-bombs. She is damaged and yet strangely endearing. Normal relationships are impossible so she compensates by being incredibly verbose with people she feels safe with-- usually among the about-to-die crowd. The connections she makes in those moments aren't much, but they're all she has. She's young but worn out, almost grimy, and prone to bad decisions in stressful situations. And for all that, she still yearns to do the right thing-- even when she's sure she'll fail.

The villains in "Blackbirds" run the gamut from psychopathic to mildly conniving. Characters that could be easy stereotypes are deftly shaped into something different, strange even, yet still convincing in a real-world setting. What I appreciated about this aspect of the book was that each character had a distinct motivation, some as simple as just doing the job and others with more menacing undertones, that kept the narrative interesting and credible even when circumstances get weird.

It would be easy to make superficial comparisons to authors like Joe Abercrombie thanks to the profanity used in "Blackbirds," but I think I like Wendig's style more than Abercrombie's (no disrespect to Joe) because I never felt like there was an underlying thread of nihilism to the story. It's bleak at times, but there's such a ferocious sense of humor in Miriam's character that you know she still has a glimmer of hope no matter how dark things get. I don't want to offer too many spoilers in this review, but I will say that the mystery of Miriam's ability is never fully revealed-- though the outline of a reason is there. At first I couldn't decide if I hated that aspect of the book or not. But I have since come to the conclusion that it is not only appropriate to the flow of the story, it makes perfect sense that Miriam's story can only be partially told because she can't ever get to the right level of connection in a relationship to really have a chance to open up to anyone. The gaps in the story create such a sense of poignancy and add a depth I didn't know could exist by not fully revealing something.

"Blackbirds" is one of those books that lingers with you a bit-- in a good way. Wendig has such a bold style that the emotional payoff is as big as the characters. It's the kind of book that has the potential to put Wendig on the map as a 'must-read' author-- I know he's made my list. Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars.


David said...

I have to admit I was taken in by the cover. Your review however will finally push me to buy it.

SQT said...

I hope you enjoy it David-- I think it's pretty terrific.