The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig
In the beginning, so the story goes, we were all free to choose: to apple or not to apple. And, of course, being of a perverse disposition, we chose the latest model from the tree and got kicked out of the Garden. Since then, our track record as a species has been on a steady downward trend as more and more of us make bad decisions and have to live and die with the consequences. Except (there’s always an exception in these stories) some like to rewrite history. The way it goes it that this omniscience thing God has going for Him enabled Him to foresee we would eat the apple otherwise God’s knowledge would be imperfect and we can’t have that blot on the escutcheon of our deity. So, when He put us in there, he already knew we were going to fail the test. He just wanted to rub our noses in knowledge of how sinful we were. So predestination trumps free will. Well perhaps only on the big issues like good person/bad person. Yet even that’s controversial. Omniscience means He already knows whether we’re good or bad, and how we’re always more likely to make the wrong decisions when given the choice. That means some are doomed to perdition from the moment of their birth.
So perhaps the big picture is that we are bound by fate as to how we will end our days, but while living our lives, we have free will on little things like whether to wear a crash helmet while riding a bicycle. Of course, all but one or two individual humans have absolutely no insight into this philosophical conundrum that would have such profound consequences if it turns out God exists. They live their lives according to whatever beliefs and principles seem appropriate. The cautious choose to believe in a deity. The reckless deny it. But what about someone like Miriam Black? The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2014) sees Miriam caught in a very difficult position. It seems not only that someone knows exactly how her power of foresight works, but also how to use it against her.
For those of you not familiar with this powerful series, Miriam had a serious moment when she was a young woman. There was a tragedy. She might have died. But when she recovered, she discovered she had the power to see when and how people would die. All it takes is a touch, skin to skin, and she knows. In the first two books, she tries to work “within the system”. She may not understand all the rules, but she can at least experiment to see just how strong the shackles of fate can be. However, at the start of this book, she may have crossed a line drawn in the supernatural sand. Having foreseen a man is going to be shot, she follows him in the hours before the due time. She tries to talk him out of going to that particular place to use the cash machine. He, of course, won’t listen. It’s his fate to be shot by a mugger. So Miriam waits close by the machine, and when the mugger appears, she shoots the mugger dead. This is a radical departure. This is not just a minor intervention in the mechanism we call predestination. This is a full-scale monkey wrench thrown into the works. The powers-that-be cannot simply sit back spinning their threads and cutting them off when they think it right. They could be endlessly frustrated by this Miriam. She has to be disciplined in a way ensuring she will no longer interfere. Another figure is brought back from the edge of death. He knew Miriam. He can be persuaded to deal with her. He can be given a power of foresight that will enable him to beat her into submission — assuming that’s what fate has in store for her, of course. You see, that’s the big imponderable in all this. If the notion of free will is correct, then someone like Miriam can work outside the system fate dictates. In the final analysis, she would not be accountable. The only problem is that others around her, perhaps those she may have some feelings for, may not be so lucky. When fate fights back, there’s almost bound to be collateral damage.
Now you would be wrong to read this review as suggesting a philosophical tone for this book. In fact, it’s completely the reverse with a robust use of language and imagery throughout. Wendig is not an author who pulls punches. He’s developing a fine voice for delivering interesting ideas wrapped up in the mantle of violent supernatural horror. This makes him one of the most challenging of all the younger writers. Rather than drawing inspiration from some of the more established tropes and frames, he’s charged off into relatively uncharted territory. Obviously, there have been many who play with the idea that no-one can fight fate, or only The One (chosen or otherwise) can win the battle. Perhaps one of the more subversive books on this theme is Un Lun Dun by China Miéville in which the ostensible Chosen One is killed off early and the side kick has to take over when everyone else gets disheartened. This book breaks with convention through the character of Miriam whose defensive mechanisms make her extremely unsociable. Indeed, she’s arguably an anti-hero. This makes The Cormorant a very successful way of continuing the series and it’s recommended for all who enjoy supernatural books that push the boundaries of taste.