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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

This is a wonderful piece of work (in all senses of the idiom). It’s a straight up-n-at-em style that hits where it hurts and takes no prisoners. From this you will gather two fundamental truths. I found Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2012) vastly enjoyable and I’m attempting to break the page speed record for the most clichés in a column inch. Welcome to the world of Miriam Black. She’s developed an unfortunate ability: precognition. With her first touch, skin to skin, she can tell exactly when and how a person will die. This is not a little distressing so, for a while, she harbours the hope she can be an angel of mercy and avert these foreseen personal disasters. Unfortunately, she runs into three problems. The first is that Fate is inflexible. Second, that she has no idea where the deaths will occur. Third, if she tries to intervene or is merely present, she can often be the cause of the effect. Take death as a result of epilepsy as an example. She foresees a man will die in a motel room. Later, she finds herself in that room with the man and they have an intense argument. This precipitates the fit and he dies — not that he doesn’t deserve to die, of course, but the fact she stayed in the room, knowing what was going to happen. . . Morally, she also crosses the line because she takes money and credit cards from those who’ve died. It helps pay her bills as she runs from herself across a grim and unromantic America as seen from highways, truck stops and motel rooms.

She endures, fighting off unwanted attention when it arises, but her lonely journey suddenly becomes hazardous. There’s an evolving situation in which some distinctly unhappy drug dealers are trying to recover their stolen product. They don’t care how many they have to torture or kill to get their drugs back. It’s the principle of the thing. No-one steals from them and lives! And Miriam? Well, Fate throws her together with the man who stole it. Ah, now the widening pool of victims could include her and a “white knight” who’s briefly by her side. Ironically, her ability tells her the thief will die of old age. . .

Chuck Wendig being a Klingon with the aid of a mask

In some author’s hands, determinism can be a bit plodding. Characters have given up. Their precognitive ability tells them what will happen and all they can do is watch as it happens. Consider the four Final Destination films in which a small group of people are saved only to realise you can’t cheat death. Except, of course, the scriptwriter usually allows one or two to survive. Well, Miriam is stuck in a comparable situation. From her point of view, it’s hopeless and all she can do to stay sane is avoid touching other people. Yet we readers have one thing going for us. Chuck Wendig has a sense of humour about all this. Here’s a really neat way of summing up the complexities of determinism as applied to a nine-year old boy called Austin. “You realize, all of life is written in a book, and we all get one book, and when that book is over, so are we. Worse, some of us get shorter books than others. Austen’s book was a pamphlet.” This captures a flavour of the prose which is electric. It’s stripped down to the wire. One touch and it carries the current directly to the brain. Although it’s good to read dense prose every now and again. Indeed, sometimes, the complexity can have its own beauty. There’s nothing better than the bare minimum where every letter is pulling its weight. Many people try to write this way and most fail miserably. Chuck Wendig has it down to a fine art. It’s tough, mean and, at times, firing enough four-letter words for the film rating agencies to insist on an R rating. He’s also got the knack of thought-transference as the images he had in his mind when writing come whiplashing into yours. Indeed, however I look back at this reading experience, it was so good, I want it again.

The best way to sum this book up is simple. Objectively, with one exception, people do terrible things to each other, but the way it’s all described is so exuberant, you get carried along and, at times, actually smile. This makes me think of those ads for chocolates, “So good, it’s sinful!” Except, from what I’ve written, you should realise this book is not for everyone. You have to be able to accept very graphic violence both in descriptions of death and in torture scenes. If this is going to be a problem, walk away. For everyone else who enjoys violent horror, this is the best so far this year. Better still Blackbirds is actually set up so there could be a sequel. Now, if that’s what Fate decrees, I say, “Bring it on!”

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
The Cormorant
Mockingbird
Unclean Spirits.

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  1. March 25, 2014 at 1:52 am

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