Curiously nerdy posts.
Another week, another book read.
This time around, I read Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig.
The blurb reads like this:
Miriam Black knows when you will die.
Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.
Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But 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.
Now this… this book is an interesting case. It’s technically urban fantasy (or thriller/suspense, or horror, if you squint), a genre that, for better and for worse, is typically used for awesome genre mishmashes that worry about what is fun first, and what actually makes sense later. This book basically plucks one paranormal aspect, which happens to be one with a ton of potential, and plunges you into a really gritty crime story, peppered with one of the lightest topics in the history of mankind: determinism.* What you get turns out to be a story that is short, curt, and punches you in the throat. It’s easy to read, but what you’re reading is not easy to digest on an emotional level.
*Just in case anyone who reads this misses the memo, that last part was sarcasm.
But… did I like it anyway? Maybe. That’s a question I’m still asking myself as I walk through this review.
The language. Though I’d never heard of him before reading this novel, Chuck Wendig is a maestro at describing things, and using the English language to paint a picture. Though sometimes his use of the term “piss yellow” to describe lights was overused, terms like “a human landslide” to describe an overly fat man, or a man in a dark suit standing on a beach as “a tall drink of motor oil” are very evocative. Unfortunately, this can also be a bit of a downer, because some of the imagery used in Miriam’s nightmares is very, VERY mature reading, and not for the squeamish. And given that Miriam’s “gift” is to see how people die, it’s probably not much of a spoiler alert for me to tell you that none of them are particularly pretty. Death never is, after all, so that’s fair enough.
But given that the world of this novel is lived in darkened truck stops, dingy motels, and old cars with meth dealers riding in them on impossibly long highways, it fits. As one character states, “Nature is brutal and grotesque. That is the only benchmark. That is the precedent. We are animals, and as part of nature, we too must be brutal and grotesque.” This novel earned the right to say something like that.
The story’s concept. Smarter people than yours truly have waxed on the topic of free will and fate for centuries before I came to this earth, and I’m sure the argument will be made for centuries afterwards, too.
I honestly am uncertain where I lie in this philosophical debate, but I’ll never tire of reading differing views on it. The concept behind Miriam is like a thought exercise on the topic, and it made me ponder it all through the book. This book is fiction, but it makes you think. That’s always a nice plus.
Harriet. I really, really liked one of the antagonists of this book. She is a short, squat woman who happens to be a complete psychopath. She is evil, completely irredeemable, and not sympathetic in the slightest. That being said, I found her fascinating, and the two chapters she narrates* are some of the most memorable in the book. I wish she’d had better plot armor, honestly. The most terrifying part of her is that she has no supernatural powers, or anything extraordinary, beyond a complete disregard for her fellows in humanity. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the world has its share of Harriets… I just hope I never meet one.
*The first one is literally, word for word, “I chopped up my husband and ran him through the garbage disposal.” That’s it. The whole thing. It’s brilliant.
Miriam. I’m not sure what to say. I didn’t particularly like her. I see what the author was going for with her, and as I’ve said before, I don’t require characters I read to be likable to still read them. The fact that I read this book should be proof of that. Her character arc is a textbook “Loner that keeps to themselves to protect themselves, but ends up doing the right thing because they develop feelings for another person despite that”, but she gets hard to read with lines like “Go choke on a turd”. She is a definite anti-hero. I get why she does the things she does, and says the things she wants to say. But I simply didn’t like her. But that’s, just like, my opinion, man.
At least she is self aware, to the point that not even she likes herself.
The plot. I had an issue with the plot as well. The entire novel is set up around rules… namely, the rules that Miriam lays out for her powers. When she touches them, she sees how, when, and where that person dies. The crux of the plot is what the blurb implies: she sees a man speak her name just before he dies, and knows, somehow, that she’s there.
That’s not the problem. That hooked me like a starving fish.
The problem is that by the climax of the book, this rule forced the author to write himself into a corner, and break his own rules to give us an ending that makes sense. Well, an ending that isn’t completely soul crushing, anyway.
I guess that’s what you get when you show how people die. You either get faced with the option of A) spoiling how the antagonist peaces out or B) having to pull something out of a hat.
It’s sold as a twist, but it’s sort of clunky.
Anyhow, regardless of those two issues, I really did enjoy this book, and would recommend it to others, depending on how squeamish they are. It’s fast paced, makes you ask interesting questions, and has some very memorable characters. Just be aware that sometimes, you’ll feel like you’re one of those people slowing down on the highway near a car accident to get a glimpse of some gore.
Because in a way, you are.
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