A drifter from a religiously conservative background, Miriam Black, is haunted by the ability to see how people will die. “I only see what I see when skin touches skin,” Miriam explains. Getting a vague sense of where or when and gory details on how, Miriam ekes out a living through bearing witness to the final moments of the deaths she foresees and then raiding the purses or wallets of the freshly departed. Hitch-hiking between motels, moving from state-to-state, Miriam can’t see any end in her routine until she meets Louis, a truck driver. The novel follows Miriam as she delves deeper into her supernatural gift and tries to feel just that bit more human again. Welcome to the novel Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Dinocalypse, The Blue Blazes).
Supernatural thriller/urban fantasy
While Blackbirds is lurking under Crime, Thrillers & Mystery on Amazon, it’s more of a supernatural thriller with a dose of urban fantasy (I say dose, because very little of the novel actually takes place in a fully urbanised location), instead taking us through the back roads of the US. Wendig gets the right balance between Miriam experiencing her power and just trying to get on with everyday life, handling the novel’s pacing with a refreshing degree of skill. You never get too bogged down with the immediate events affecting Miriam and the rest of the main characters.
Building Miriam’s psychic ability around touch makes for a more believable representation of this supernatural element, and grounds the ability so that Miriam isn’t all knowing and provides consequences to her everyday life. Reminiscent of the character David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis) in Unbreakable, there’s one demonstration of Miriam’s powers that really sticks with me that’s the anthithesis to that scene where Dunn puts his hands out in a train station. In Blackbirds, Miriam pushes through a diner and is unwillingly subjected to visions of numerous deaths while she tries desperately to keep her arms and hands away from her fellow diners and staff.
Despite gripping descriptions of the brutality suffered by the all sides in the novel, Wendig fails to really bring the novels antagonists to the fore. We’re treated to interludes where their backgrounds are described from their perspective, but these moments are short lived and don’t show enough of the pathology to explain why they became the hardened criminals they are. One antagonist in particular, Frankie, is never properly examined. The novel acknowledges that he doesn’t know why he’s with the people he is, but he’s never treated to a moment to explain how he really ended up with his current role.
One thing the novel does well is illustrate the violence that surrounds Miriam, whether from the people after her, or a world that is unknowingly hostile to her gift. If there aren’t actual agents of violence after her, the environment evokes pathos wherever Miriam goes. Her world is decaying around her, beating her up like she beats herself up, all reflecting what her life has been since she realised she could see how people would die. The overall effect of all the sadness that follows her around is that Wendig manages to make the moments where Miriam gets to be the twenty-something she really is all that more powerful.
If you’ve been looking for a supernatural thriller or urban fantasy novel to get into, then this is definitely a mature yet enjoyable read. While not the happiest of novels, Wendig is skilfull in his portrayal of a protagonist who thinks she has nothing left to lose. However, readers averse to detailed descriptions of violence may want to give this a miss.
Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is published by Angry Robot and is out now, the first in a series. We bought our own copy of the novel.