The Nameless Horror

Chuck Wendig's BLACKBIRDS, a late-to-the-party review

Sometime just before Christmas, the steel-clawed cybernetic rulers of Angry Robot decreed that there would be a series of by-author sales, with books reduced to free/peanuts or free peanuts for LIMITED TIMES and MASSIVE SAVINGS. TM. One of those writers was Chuck Wendig, and one of those books was BLACKBIRDS, which I had heard many good things about (and whose Joey Hi-Fi cover I’d always admired), but hadn’t bought because I already sold both kidneys to cover my son’s school lunch money.


So BLACKBIRDS winged freely to the feathered nest of my phone. (And so did MOCKINGBIRD and THE BLUE BLAZES for next to nothing, but I don’t have a handy metaphor for those too and anyway shut up.)

And I’ve read it. And once I’m done with Jeff Vandermeer’s FINCH, I’m going to read MOCKINGBIRD. And here’s why.

Protagonist Miriam Black can see how you’re going to die. One touch of skin on skin, and bang, instant replay, date and time. She lives hand-to-mouth, hitching around until she finds someone whose end is imminent, and then emptying their wallet after it happens. That’s the core conceit, and it’s obviously a good one. She meets someone whose death seems to directly involve her, and then someone else who knows what she can do, and then someone else else who also knows this and isn’t at all nice. That right there is the story. More or less.

Like a lot of other people, I very much liked this book. It’s really, really good. I’ve read Chuck before - and while, yes, he is a bearded internet phenomenon unto himself, he got that way through (a) working a lot and (b) being good at what he does. And this is good. Miriam is a superb protagonist, as miserable and messed up as you’d expect someone with her ability to be, and consequently when she has the chance to change her stars, just a little, you want it to work out for her. That the villains, held just shy of scenery-chewingly vicious, seem so capable of making it not work out, means that there’s a healthy bucket of tension to sustain what’s actually, despite its concept, a very simple tale.

What especially struck me, though, is how Chuck handles the issue of Miriam’s past and the events that led to her manifesting her power. You don’t see the Big Thing for what it is until quite late on, and even then it’s not explicitly stated or explained that this is what did it. Its effects, which could/would be the source of much melodrama in lesser hands, are also never directly referred to. It’s very smartly done.

The writing’s lean, the skipping timeline never confuses (and features a nice little reveal when you learn when the interview happens in relation to the main events), and the secondary characters are rich and believable.

If I had a quibble, and in reviewing something you sort of feel like you should pick at anything if you can, it would be that Miriam escapes her lowest point on a particular bathroom floor with the aid of a truly remarkable piece of luck, not skill, that deals with the particular threat she faces. It’s a very minor quibble, and by the time it happens the story has banked so much credit with you that it doesn’t matter a damn.

BLACKBIRDS came out something like a billion years ago and as far as I know I’m the only person on Earth who hadn’t already read it, but nevertheless, I’d would heartily recommend anyone else do so, for money and everything. It’s really top notch story-telling.