Death Takes Flight in Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds

In Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig introduces us to Miriam Black, the feisty and foul-mouthed twentysomething anti-hero with the unwanted ability to touch someone and know not only how, but when they’ll die. The first in the bird-themed series (future volumes include Mockingbird and The Cormorant), this one hits the ground at full-speed, dropping readers into the thick of things and bounding from one seedy roadside stop to the next, with Miriam using her freaky abilities to maintain her desperate-woman-on-the-run lifestyle. Scruples and ethics? Who needs ’em? It’s not like the soon-to-be-dead are going to need their money.

The book moves with the same hellzapoppin’ pace that has become Wendig’s trademark. Miriam struggles with the impact of her black magic touch, continuing her nomadic drifter existence until she crosses paths with a two very different men who threaten to shake up her already jumbled life. Louis is a gentle hulk of a truck driver who Miriam realizes will die a horrible, tortured death as a result of meeting her; the hunky, mysterious Ashley is a fellow drifter with a pair of brutal assassins on his trail.

The author isn’t one to let world-building get in the way of a propulsive story. There are a few early chapters in which a young blogger interviews Miriam, allowing her to fill in some of the cracks in the “rules” of her special touch, but even that opportunity for exposition dissolves into sudden, unforeseen ugliness. There’s not a shred of narrative fat. Miriam Black—sarcastic, with a well-developed sense of self-preservation, and a weird degree of sex appeal—is left to accept her ability as either a gift or a curse. And then there’s the matter of just trying to stay alive, and one step ahead of a particularly nasty big bad.

Wendig’s below-the-belt approach to storytelling is, for lack of a coarser word, charming, mixing humor and horror into a nifty blob. He works in constant quick jabs, never afraid to mangle and mutilate characters at a moment’s notice. Blackbirds unspools with the frenzy of a bag of mad cats, an unpredictably energetic thriller with a supernatural hook. It clocks in at under 300 pages, and he uses that compact canvas wisely. The themes are pitch black, the violence is quick and constant, and Miriam is charismatic enough to hold the chaos together.

Miriam’s fatalistic wiles give the series its black heart. She is no dummy, digging deep into her personal mythology and reluctantly accepting her role as a psychopomp (from the Greek word psuchopompos, or “guide of souls”), adopting the belief that blackbirds help shuttle souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead. (Naturally, she prefers to dye her hair with Blackbird Black.)

The Starz cable network is set to bring Miriam Black to television, and as long as the series maintains the same gut level of bloody violence and rough language as the books, it will be must-see entertainment. In the meantime, Saga Press is reissuing the series (originally published in mass market by Angry Robot) in hardcover and trade paperback, and has commissioned more of them. Long live Miriam Black! (Hopefully… Unfortunately, the trick doesn’t work on yourself.)

Blackbirds is available September 15. Mockingbird and The Cormorant follow in October and February.

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