Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Genre: Paranormal
Main characters: Miriam Black
Time and place: present day, US (some of it is North Carolina, but there’s more)
First sentence:Car lights strobe through busted motel blinds.

Verdict: Okay but forgettable.

Miriam Black has a strange ability: the first time her skin touches another person’s skin she sees how that person will die. At first, she tried to act on it, prevent unnecessary deaths. It didn’t work. So now she’s sort of going with it, sometimes trying to be there when people die so she could steal their money.

And then one day she met Louis. A truck driver, “sweet, sad, damaged“. She likes him, and the feeling is mutual — and then she accidentally touches him and sees that he will be brutally murdered very soon. And apparently she will be there when it happens. She cannot warn him, of course, and she knows that the future she sees cannot be changed… but she has to do something, right? If only she knew what that something was.

General impression
I picked this up from NetGalley (thank you NetGalley!) on a whim, as I thought the premise quite interesting. A quick read, I finished it in less than a day. I have no idea why I thought it YA, but it is definitely not so — it has lots of foul language and some gore. Thing is, it was quite interesting, and yet I kept feeling like it was missing something I cannot put my finger on, hence the “okay but forgettable” verdict mentioned above.

You know how sometimes I read some books and notice that all characters were kind and nice, and I like that about them? This book is the very opposite: everyone in it is “damaged goods”, having faced traumas that more often that not turns them psychotic. The language, the actions, everything is brutal, and people are getting maimed or murdered without a second thought. Everything feels… gritty, for lack of a better word. Not precisely my cup of tea, yet the book was well written enough, and the world building was good enough for me to read on.

Miriam is quite an interesting character. In her own words, she’s “a bad girl, not a bad person“, which I think it’s the perfect way of putting it. She grew up with a very religious mother, and her upbringing reminds one of Stephen King’s Carrie. One wouldn’t know this by seeing her today, as Miriam has every ‘small’ vice there is: she smokes, she drinks a lot, she curses like a sailor, she enjoys casual sex and has a violent streak (admittedly, this comes in very handy when she needs to defend herself, but there is at least one instance when she physically hurt someone for the sake of it). She steals dead people’s money for a living, taking advantage of her peculiar gift that allows her to be present at various death scenes. She doesn’t sound like a very sympathetic character so far, does she? There are some parts of her I really did not like.

And yet, despite her flaws and despite the fact that I could have done with less foul language, I ended up rooting for her. She’s been through a lot, and was damaged in the process, but underneath the outer layer she is neither mean nor evil. She could make a fortune exploiting her gift, and yet she is not fully without scruples, and I liked that about her. She has witnessed countless deaths, and yet she has not become indifferent to it, even as the people involved are total strangers. And, of course, what I liked most about her was her inner struggle regarding Louis — should she save him? Can she save him? Should she even care? After all, people die all the time, don’t they, and the future cannot be changed. But she cannot sit around and not even try to do something either, can she? And so on. It would have been so easy for her to just let go of the idea, but she doesn’t (or at least not for long), and herein lies the source of my appreciation for her, such as it is.

Which is funny in a way because I am not sure I actually liked Louis. As far as these characters go, he is definitely the sanest and the nicest of them all — and yet, it felt to me that the crazy, dark, gritty setting dirtied everything in it (ah, and the language, of course, never helped), which is why my interest in Louis never got past the idea that he has to live because Miriam wants him to. I didn’t much care for him otherwise, although he probably was nice enough to be likable if I had given him a chance.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re interesting, as the author has provided some of them with backgrounds that partly justify their current inclinations, but… let’s just say we didn’t click, take from that what you will. Perhaps “I hated all of them, and Ashley most of all” would be a better way to put it :)

A quote, showcasing both Miriam’s wry sense of humor (which I liked) and her somewhat violent approach to life (which I wasn’t a fan of) :

[Ashley comes and sits at her table and she is not pleased to see him]
“I’m just going to pretend you’re a pink elephant. You’ll kindly take this opportunity to get up and slink out of this place like a rat before I open my eyes, because if I open my eyes and still see you there, oh Figment of My Diseased Imagination, I’m going to stab you in the neck with my fork.”

I probably should write a bit about Ashley too, after having mentioned him quite a few times already. Thing is, he’s nothing but a small time crook, cocky, rotten to the core, and with no redeeming qualities at all. Meh.

Miriam is attracted to dangerous people. And alas, I am not a fan of dangerous people, who don’t give a damn about other people’s feelings. Which means it should go without saying that I did not approve of Miriam’s relationship choices (except, of course, when she got close to Louis, whom, while I did not perceive as nice, at least had the potential to be so, which is far more than I can say of Ashley). Sort of a waste of time, this part, although I did like the way Louis grew on her despite the fact that she did not want him to.

Someone is on the run and there are killers after him and Miriam ends up caught in the middle. Louis too is unwittingly dragged into it. And that’t about it, plot wise. To be honest I didn’t care all that much about any of it (how could I, given that I couldn’t stand any of the people involved), all I cared about was seeing how things with Miriam’s vision would unfold — will she be able to change the past and save Louis? If so, how? The rest was more or less background noise.

What I liked most
There’s something else out there. After having her vision of Louis’ death, Miriam starts being haunted by his ghost (despite the fact that he is still very much alive). At first she thinks he’s nothing but a figment of her imagination, but sometimes it turns out he knows things she doesn’t. Whatever he is, I liked both the mystery (the fact that I get to theorize about what he may or may not be :) ) and the way the relationship between ghost Louis and Miriam evolves — sure, he’s very creepy-looking, but since he always showed up in times of crisis I think that Miriam actually welcomed his company near the end; when times are tough any company being better than no company at all and all that. Also, another reason why I think she grew quite comfortable with him (notwithstanding the way he looked) is that he is able to know what she’s thinking, so around him she never needed to pretend she was anything else. Sounds like a comfortable dynamic, and I enjoyed discovering this one more than I did the one between Miriam and the real, live Louis.

What I liked least
The nitty-gritty of the way Miriam’s power works is revealed to us via her answers to an interview, of all things. Try as I might I cannot imagine why someone with her strange power and not-quite-pleasant personal history would want to see any of these revealed to the world. Sure, nothing is printed in the end, but all I could think of while reading was what a bad, bad, bad idea this was, for all sorts of reasons.

Also, this is of course a personal preference and YMMV, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the imagery in the book. Okay, I get the reason for the foul language, as someone as damaged as Miriam and the rest of the cast would probably talk like that, if not worse. However, some of the things that the author chooses to conjure via the said language were a bit too aggressive for me — like saying that a car “gallops forward like someone’s trying to stick a riding crop up its a**“, or that the traffic was “locked up tighter than a handful of tampons crammed up a nun’s a**hole“. Eeek.

Thoughts on the title
I actually loved the title :)

Blackbirds [...] are cool birds. Symbols of death in most mythology. They say that blackbirds are psychopomps. Like sparrows, they’re birds that supposedly help shuttle souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

Although I am not quite sure why the plural form was preferred, since as far as we know now Miriam is the only person with these abilities. Or perhaps the term should be expanded to include all killers?

Thoughts on the ending
Somewhat far fetched and a tad overdone. Reminded me of the movie The Ring, in a way.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
The book’s current Goodreads rating is 4.20, so despite the fact that I felt it lacked something to make it truly memorable, I encourage anyone who is not put off by foul language and/or some physical violence to give it a try.

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  1. Admittedly, this is only a theory of mine, that can turn out to be disproven in the next books. Until then however… []

One thought on “Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

  1. I read dark books but I don’t think I would like this one. I’m just not a fan of books flooded with foul words. Sometimes, I end up searching the foul words rather than focusing on the whole story. Anyway, it’s still a pretty much nice review. Thanks!

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