Friday, 24 February 2012

‘Blackbirds’ – Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot)

It’s early days yet but my theory is that, beneath that mild mannered exterior, Chuck Wendig could very well be a superhero writer using his powers to rescue readers from a reading fate worse than… [insert your least favourite book here]. It’s true, my zombie reads were starting to shamble down a very tedious and ‘samey’ path but, just in the nick of time, Wendig suddenly appeared on the scene with ‘Double Dead’, a zombie tale with a difference. You can either read my review Here or just have a quick look at how I rounded things off…

‘I didn’t realise that my faith in zombie novels was starting to wane but ‘Double Dead’ restored it anyway. There’s something here for both zombie and vampire fans (apart from ‘Twilight’ fans, obviously) and it’s all drenched in blood and entrails.’

I resolved to keep an eye open for anything else of Wendig’s and it turned out that I really didn’t have all that long to wait. Angry Robot will be releasing Chuck Wendig’s ‘Blackbirds’ around May time but I was lucky enough not to have to wait that long for a look at the book. And what did I think…? ‘Blackbirds’ is a totally different book to ‘Double Dead’ but the end result was that it blew my mind in exactly the same way.

All it takes is one touch and Miriam Black knows exactly when and how you will die… and there’s nothing that she can do to stop it happening. She’s tried over and over again but that just makes the death that she has seen all the more likely to happen. All Miriam can do then is keep on moving, and touch as few people as possible, but something is about to happen that will change everything.
Miriam shakes the hand of truck driver Louis Darling and sees that he will die in thirty days, gruesomely murdered while he calls her name. Miriam can’t save Louis but if she wants to stay alive then she’s going to have to try anyway.

I don’t normally do this in a review but I just wanted to take a quick paragraph to basically gush over the cover art a little as it’s gorgeous. If I was in the habit of doing ‘favourite cover art of the year’ posts then this would be an early contender, it might even take the prize right now. I don’t just love the way that it’s made out of blackbirds, I also love the way that closer examination reveals moments from the book as well as the amount of death that has filled Miriam up. Its artwork that you just can’t take your eye off. My advance copy doesn’t give the artist’s name but Angry Robot have more than got their money’s worth here.

But back to the book itself, a book that I had real trouble putting down… There are hints of a sequel here and I for one and all excited just about the possibility that this may be the case.

I’m hard pressed to remember any other book that I’ve read where death haunts the pages in the way it does here. Death is quite literally everywhere; whether it’s in the bleak landscape Miriam walks through, the hearts (and ultimate fates) of the people she meets and Miriam herself. ‘Blackbirds’ is a short read, clocking in at two hundred and eighty seven pages, but it’s a book where the subject matter makes the book feel that little bit heavier in your hands.

It’s a depressing read then, of course it is. How can it not be with the main character forced to live people’s deaths whenever she touches them? It’s clear then that Wendig has a struggle on his hands if he is going to hook the reader in past all of that so they can get to the story proper. The good news is that it turned out not to be a struggle at all. Wendig hooked me and I reckon you’ll be hooked too.

For me, Wendig’s masterstroke was not to sensationalise Miriam’s ability and send ‘Blackbirds’ down the trail of other more generic urban fantasies. Everything is very downbeat and matter of fact, so matter of fact that it is all very readable and flows as smoothly as your passage from this world to whatever comes next.
Wendig also makes it clear that he has a very healthy respect for death and what it means to die as well. Again, no sensationalism here. Everyone dies eventually and the way it happens isn’t fair; the way you check out is the way you check out. Wendig appeals to the slightly nasty part of us that we don’t want to admit to but know is there. Who amongst us doesn’t secretly want to know how it all ends for us? And who amongst us doesn’t want to know how others die so that we can hope for something a little easier for ourselves? Wendig can’t give us the answer to the first question but he gives us plenty of answers to the second.

Caught up in the middle of this is Miriam (a strangely endearing mix of viciousness and vulnerability), a young woman who is trying to deal with this unwanted ability in the only way she knows how; making sure that she stays away from as many people as she can. At the same time though, Miriam can’t help but seem to attract trouble and this is what drives the plot down some dark and unexpected roads. For a book that’s about fate (and how you can’t fight it) everything ties together very neatly in the end but, as Wendig no doubt intended, not quite in the way that you’d expect. There’s a real contrast here, one that I think will be explored in further books. I hope so anyway.
I think that’s where ‘Blackbirds’ fell down, slightly, for me. While the main plot wraps itself up nicely there are other strands that are clearly being set up for resolution at a later date and this offers a contrasting effect that makes the book feel ‘unfinished’ in a strange way.

This is a relatively small price to pay though when you’ve got Wendig throwing you into any number of violent and chilling encounters with what is becoming his typical abrasive attitude. The guy has only written two books and already I can’t get enough. If you’re after some urban fantasy that is by no means typical then ‘Blackbirds’ is probably already on your wish list. For everyone else, give it a go anyway and have your mind blown. Wendig takes you on a journey, down the forgotten highways of America, that you won’t soon forget.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Marco @ AR said...

Just to note that the very fine cover art was by Joey FiFi, who also did the BSFA Award-winning UK cover to Zoo City. He's also created the art for Chuck's sequel, Mockingbird, due September 12.

- Marco @ Angry Robot

Chuck said...


First, thanks for the kind review. :)

Second, cover is by Joey Hi-Fi.

Third, the next in the series, MOCKINGBIRD, hits in September of this year. And the book after that, THE CORMORANT, is in the early stages of planning.

Fourth, if you are looking for more of my work, check out SHOTGUN GRAVY, an e-novella. If you like BLACKBIRDS I think you might dig that.

Thanks again for the great review.

-- Chuck

SQT said...

Flat-out awesome book. I was going to mention that a new book was coming out- but Chuck beat me to it.

Jo said...

Wow .... what a review! Nice to read your thoughts on the book -- I've got it on order for my public library, so I've already been looking forward to reading it. Now, will have to restrain myself from grabbing it before anyone else. :)