Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

To be honest Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds isn’t the sort of thing I’d normally be induced to pick up, although Joey Hi Fi’s amazing cover certainly does draw the eye.

I saw a number of positive reviews by people whose judgement I ordinarily trust, and the Fantasy Faction forum made it their read of the month for June, so I decided to try it out.

Powerful, compelling, dark and raw are 4 words I’d use to describe Blackbirds. The narrative drags you in with it’s brutal opening chapter and holds on for grim death right until the last page.

Miriam Black can see people’s deaths with a touch of their skin. This isn’t a particularly new idea. Similar themes have been explored before in books and movies, most notably the TV show Medium worked on a similar premise. The way Wendig tells Miriam’s story, and the character herself, are different, though.

It’s a brave writer who deliberately selects a fairly unpleasant and abrasive character as their protagonist, and it’s an even braver one that surrounds this protagonist with a cast of characters who for the most part are even less likeable, okay 3 of them are villains, but they were awful people. There’s only one genuinely good person amongst the cast, so it’s not surprising that Miriam fixates on the easy going truck driver Louis and determines that for once she is going to try and outwit fate to prevent what she has seen as his predetermined death.

Chuck Wendig explores what it would be like to have Miriam’s ‘gift’ in an intelligent manner. She doesn’t want it, it’s not fun, she can see what’s going to happen, but she can’t stop it. On one occasion when she tried she actually became the cause of the incident. For most  part people aren’t murdered, people die in relatively mundane ways; old age, illness, traffic accidents, etc… Miriam finds herself living on the fringes of society, drifting, using her ‘gift’ to scrape a living, not getting close to anyone or letting anyone get close to her.

The way Wendig has chosen to tell the story is another thing that stood out in Blackbirds. It’s told in 3rd person (most urban fantasy tends to be 1st person), and it’s present tense. This is really hard to do and in less skilled hands would probably have been jarring and irritating. It worked for me in Blackbirds, early on I had to check to see if each chapter was actually written 3rdperson, because it was just not something I expected. The blanks in Miriam’s life are largely filled in during the interludes as she is being interviewed by a college student about her ‘gift’.

The prose is filled with profanity, but even that’s used differently. I’m used to profanity in books, it’s good for emphasis or to display what a character is like by the way they talk, but Wendig uses Miriam’s foul mouth as a tool of description, it’s shocking and amusing at once, and provides a good deal of humour in what is at heart a fairly bleak story. He uses short choppy sentences and rarely is a word wasted or out of place.

Blackbirds is entirely self contained, but a sequel; Mockingbird, is planned. In fact I hope it’s being written right this minute so I can read it as soon as possible.

No review of Blackbirds would be complete without talking about Joey Hi Fi’s mind blowing cover. It’s in stark black and white, it features a woman’s face with her hair being composed entirely of blackbirds. If you look closely at the birds you’ll see images directly from the story hiding amongst them. It’s rare for a cover to so accurately match the contents of the book it adorns. It must win an award!

A brilliant book that will stay with me for some time.


  1. I'm glad you liked it. I love Wendig's style. If you haven't read his blog Terrible Minds you should. He's as entertaining a blogger as he is a novelist.

  2. After I read the book I connected to him on Twitter and also checked out the blog. Blackbirds is one of the standouts of 2012 for me.

  3. Sounds excellent! I've been hearing good things about this all over the place, and your review has put this at the top of my list!

    it doesn't sound like a "gift", it sounds like a curse, like something that could quickly turn an otherwise normal person into an unlikeable antisocial person on the fridges of society. unlikeable protags don't typically turn me off, so that shouldn't be a problem. Ever read Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg? the protag is a telepath, and it's a curse, not a gift.

  4. It seriously messes up Miriam's life. You're correct it is a horrible curse. The book actually makes you think about what it would be like to have this curse and it doesn't shy away from the fact that death is a messy business.