Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Review of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2012)

Miriam Black is twenty two years old yet she has witnessed hundreds of deaths.  She only has to touch skin-on-skin with another person and she has a vision of how when and how they’ll die.  Initially she tried to intervene, to save people from their fate, but she soon learnt that by doing so she became an agent in their death.  Haunted by her lack of ability to stop accidents, murders and disease she has drifted into a life on the road, moving from one location to the next, scavenging money from people who she knows are about to die and living by her wits.  One night she hitches a ride with Louis, a truck driver.  She feels comfortable in his presence until she shakes his hand and sees his gruesome death in thirty days time in  which he calls out her name.  Knowing that she will be responsible for his death and that she herself will be in great danger she flees his company in an effort to cheat fate.  If she’s not present, then his death cannot unfold as foreseen.  Later that evening she hooks up with small-time con artist, Ashley, who trails in his wake a gang looking for retribution.  Then she bumps into Louis again.  Whichever way she twists and turns, Louis’ fate and thus her own seem sealed.

Blackbirds is somewhat of a curious book.  The hook is excellent and some of the writing mouth watering, yet there is something slightly off key.  Having slept on it I think the issue is that story felt like two separate tales jammed together.  On the one hand, it is the story of Miriam, a young woman who is street smart, damaged, fragile, feisty and generally messed up, who on touching someone sees a vision of their death, and her search for answers, redemption and some kind of hope and alternative future.  Wendig does a great job at detailing her life, her thoughts, dreams and fears, mixing the present with her back story, and her tentative relationship with Louis, who is also damaged goods and looking for a new start.  The characterization is excellent and I’d happily spend more time in her company.  On the other hand, it is the story of small-time con artist, Ashley, and the three psychotic serial killers who are after him.  Whilst Ashley is mildly interesting, Harriet, Frankie and Ingersoll are caricatures cookie-cut from serial killer dough.  More awkward is the weaving of the two tales together.  Ashley is stalking Miriam, whilst also on the run from Ingersoll and co, who are meant to be drug dealers.  These are straight-up psychotic serial killers (a band of three), not drug dealers (with territory, networks, etc).  It is not at all clear how Ashley is tracking Miriam, or how Ingersoll and co are tracking Ashley.  Ashley simply turns up at whatever motel Miriam is staying and Harriet and Frankie arrive shortly after.  This may be urban fantasy, but the plot has to make sense within the logic of the world created.  The result, for me at least, was the fascinating and wonderful thread concerning Miriam was undermined by the intersecting storyline which didn’t ring true.  It did work to create tension and action, and a lot of swearing and violence, and to set up the endgame with respect to Louis, but this tale is all about Miriam and those elements could have been there without Ingersoll and co.  Overall then, a story with a great hook and lead character, that has some striking, engaging prose, but a plotline that seems to fuse two tales that don’t quite gel.  I doubt I’ll buy a book with a better cover this year; very intricate and striking.


Anonymous said...

Rob - This does sound like an intriguing premise for a novel even if the stories didn't quite fold together for you. Thanks for the fine review.

Marina Sofia said...

You've made me curious to read this book - a fine, well-balanced review.