Angry Robot Books, based in England, often bills itself as a purveryor of SF, F, and WTF fiction. It’s that last category that often intrigues me the most. And nothing fits that better than Chuck Wendig’s novel Blackbirds. It’s edgy, in-your-face, and brutal… and it also tells a great story.
“Miriam Black knows when you will die.
Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.
Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.”
This is not a novel that pulls any punches for the sake of readers’ sensibilities. It contains sex, graphic violence, drinking, and enough cursing to make an entire convent of nuns faint dead away. Miriam is one of the most damaged heroines in the genre–she uses casual sex and hard drinking as a buffer against the violent death that she regularly witnesses. Most of the other characters have their own roster of anti-social tendencies as well.
And yet, it’s impossible not to sympathize with–and eventually like–Miriam. There are chapters in the story marked as “interludes”, in which Miriam tells her history to a reporter from a fringe magazine. Weaving together these vignettes with the plotline’s action gives readers a better picture of Miriam than they’d get from just seeing her in action. In the interstichals, she talks dispassionately about her life, answers questions about her feelings, and generally gives readers the chance to peer “behind the curtain”.
Miriam is a well-rounded character, but the others have equally unique voices too. As I already mentioned, most of the cast are not the most savory of characters. Among those, the one that struck me the most was Harriet, a short stocky woman who revels in violence. Her glee at causing pain caused me a few shudders. Contrasting these villainous types is Louie, the rough-around-the-edges trucker who nonetheless shows Miriam the first true kindness that she’s had for a long time.
Knowing how Louie dies, and knowing how long he has, gives the plot an edge of urgency. Of course, readers will wonder if there’s any chance of Miriam stopping his terrible fate, and that’s the question that reverberates throughout the novel: do we actually have choice and free will, or is our future already written? Miriam faces this question repeatedly, both in the “present” of the story and in flashbacks.
All these weighty matters aside, this is a novel that is tough to put down. Wendig sets readers up to want to know more, to want to keep reading and find out what happens next. There’s plenty of action to balance out the reflective moments, and readers won’t be long into the book before they’re cheering for Miriam and boo-ing the bad guys. Blackbirds is tough and gritty, and it isn’t afraid to get in your face with a curse and a puff of cigarette smoke. It’s not for sensitive readers, but this dark fantasy is a stand-out among the novels that equate “bloody” with “edgy”.