The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Singing in the Dead of Night (Review: Blackbirds; Chuck Wendig)

Blackbirds by Chuck WendigBlackbirds
Chuck Wendig
Angry Robot 2012

Imagine you could see the future. Every event about to unfold around you in a crystal-clear vision. You know every single disaster which is going to affect humanity. Every war, every famine, every plane crash. You try to tell people, to save them, but no-one listens. No-one believes you. For all your visions you can't change a single thing. The world marches inexorably onwards - pain, suffering and all - and you're doomed to forever be a spectator. Such was the fate of Cassandra in Greek mythology and Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds gives us a modernised, black-clad retelling of the classic tale.

Miriam Black is a young woman with a problem. For years now she's been averse to physical contact with other people, specifically skin-on-skin contact. People mistake her reticence for aloofness, a certain arrogance, but she's avoiding a much greater problem. When Miriam touches another's skin she is granted access to the closing minutes of their lives. Played out before her like a movie are their dying moments. Locations, last words, specific times and specific causes - all are there and forever imprinted in her mind. Unfortunately, as she soon finds out through a heartbreaking episode with a young boy and his red balloon, there is nothing she can do. Her power is limited to knowledge and action is beyond her.

The opening chapters of Blackbirds see Miriam drifting through life as a loner. Denied any possibility of intimate relationships without paying the price of this mortal knowledge has driven her to take advantage of her gifts. Rather than becoming attached she searches for men who are not long for this earth. A brush against them in a restaurant is enough to know their fates, and once she has someone in her sights she follows until the final moments. Car crash, heart attack, overdose, it's all the same to her. As soon as the inevitable has occurred she swoops in, relieves them of any excess currency, and makes her way to the next encounter. She has convinced herself that it's the ultimate in victimless crime - there's nothing she can do so what's the problem?

Despite her hard exterior it's obvious that Miriam has an enormous hole in her life. This hole seems like it may be filled as a knight in shining armour (well, a truck) saves her from the unwelcome advances of a couple of jocks while hitchhiking. Before long though, she has brushed his skin and there it is - his violent death played out in all its gory, torture-filled detail, with her as a spectator. Seeing Louis die before her eyes, both in vision and future reality, jolts Miriam out of her torpor but before long she's in another kind of trouble altogether. A rather sinister element has discovered her powers and is intent on using them for their own purposes.

Blackbirds is essentially a very dark tale. There is initially very little redeeming about Miriam's character, cynicism dripping off her every jaded remark. The book itself is liberally soaked in death and misery and what humour it raises is dark in the extreme. However it is also a tale of redemption, of Miriam wrestling with her seemingly implacable destiny and choosing whether to see her ability as curse or blessing.

While it seems difficult to feel sympathy for such a caustic character
her cause in vying for the reader's affections is aided by Chuck Wendig's burdening her with villains even more dislikeable. She has an abusive partner-in-crime foisted upon her and is soon trailed by a devilish trio. A master criminal and his two accomplices (who strangely reminded me of Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo in A Life Less Ordinary) add some true evil to proceedings, their pursuit of Miriam culminating in a violent climax in a remote lighthouse.

One of the criticisms commonly leveled at Blackbirds is that it's just too dark and leaves too many threads unresolved. However, the progressively more hope-filled atmosphere of the book indicates that the following books in the series (Mockingbirds, out now, and Cormorant, out this year) will round out Miriam's story. Who am I kidding though? I liked her from the outset and will be cheering my new favourite anti-heroine through the rest of her misanthropic misadventures.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Blackbirds and Mockingbirds are available now so get your Greek myth and misery on and give them a read.


Unknown said…
Such a beautifully written review of Blackbirds. You've got a great way with words without spoiling the story.
back to top