I was first made aware of author Chuck Wendig as being a great, wise sage of writing and editing advice. In addition to writing books on how to better craft your own stories, he also doles out various nuggets of wisdom on his blog and Twitter account. But unlike a lot of folks who enjoy simply talking about the process of writing, Wendig actually writes a lot of stuff, too.
One day while perusing one of Wendig’s online guides to editing your own work, I decided it was time to see if this guy was the real deal. His blog and one-liners on Twitter were consistently informative and amusing, but could he transfer that type of writing prowess over to a full length novel that would actually be enjoyable to read?
I decided to pick up Blackbirds, the first book in a series that seemed to be receiving quite a bit of fervent praise from readers and major publications, alike. I cracked open the first page on my quest to answer a question we like to ask a lot around here at Adventures in Poor Taste: Is it good?
I’m very happy to report that the answer is a resounding YES.
Blackbirds is told from the viewpoint of Miriam Black, a foul-mouthed, incredibly damaged woman who lives her life as an aimless drifter. A large part of her messed up psychology is due to the fact that whenever she touches someone else’s skin, she can see exactly how and when they’ll die.
As you might imagine, seeing that much death through the simple acting of coming in contact with another human being can take its toll on a person. But in addition to her manic nature, Miriam also has an incredibly sharp wit, one part formed as a defensive shell and one part a result of her being incredibly smart and snarky.
She does her best to keep everyone she meets and develops any fondness for at a distance, both emotionally and physically. But when she sees the death of a kind man she meets, Miriam discovers that she will be physically present for his gruesome, terrible death in a matter of weeks.
Miriam has tried to change the fate of some of the people she’s met before, but that only resulted in making her a part of destiny’s inevitable design towards that person’s end. Now, however, she’s desperately trying to find any way possible to keep this death from happening right in front of her eyes. Her quest ends up pitting her against a con man, a ruthless group of contract killers, her own destructive nature, and the forces of fate itself.
Whether you find that plot interesting or not, Wendig’s characters are all incredibly well drawn. In the hands of many other authors, a character like Miriam could easily end up being a melodramatic martyr or so over the top crazy that the reader cannot connect with her at all.
But in Wendig’s hands, Miriam is beautifully complicated and compelling. She seamlessly transitions from voicing exactly what the reader is thinking to surprising you from one chapter to the next. She’s sympathetic and sickening, cruel and kind, beautiful as well as broken. She’s just a hair shy of crazy, but still more than smart enough to make you constantly want to know what she’s going to think or say next (In other words, I’m totally in love with this fictional woman).
But Miriam Black is hardly the only great character in the novel. Two of the villains in particular are some of the best I have read from any work of fiction in a very long time. They reminded me a lot of the bad guys that you find in movies by the Coen Brothers; single minded, virtually unstoppable forces of evil and doom.
But Wendig takes that concept a bit further, slowly letting us get inside the villains’ heads to see a bit more of what makes them tick. Instead of of humanizing them or making us feel a tinge of sympathy, however, the insights work to make these particular characters even more terrifying.
The world that Wendig creates is also a real treat. Even this is considered an “urban fantasy,” Wendig doesn’t drop the ball when it comes to making sure the reader if fully immersed in the story’s various real world locations and environments.
As far as the supernatural element goes, the usual pitfalls of sliding power scales or unexplained changes are completely avoided. Wendig creates rules, makes sure we understand them, and for the most part sticks to them.
When the rules do change (as they always do in these type of stories), he is careful to make sure that it not only makes sense, but also comes with a cost and a strong purpose. You never feel as though your investment in the world being described within the book’s pages has been squandered due to lazy storytelling.
How Does It Read?
One thing I really liked about this book was the fact that I was hooked from the very beginning. Even the portions of story meant to create space between major sections give you something that makes you never want to stop turning the pages.
And for any of you worrying that the plot is set up to deliver an inevitable contrived ending (like I was), fear not. The book picks up more and more steam with each chapter, barreling forward towards a climax that is both incredibly intense and satisfying…
…and that ended up sounding way more sexual than I intended. But in all seriousness, you won’t have any portions of the novel that you have to “slog through” or have to worry about an ending that will let you down. It’s brilliantly crafted and paced for optimal reading pleasure.
Different Strokes Alert
When I described Miriam Black as “foul-mouthed,” that was probably a gross understatement. The woman has no problem saying in public what many of us only yell at stupid drivers while sitting alone in our cars. And if you think any of what she says out loud is bad, what she thinks is often much more vulgar and/or disturbing.
There’s also some pretty graphic content to traverse, as well. The fights and injuries suffered by various characters are as visceral as they are violent. Wendig also doesn’t shy away from dealing with Miriam’s sexual nature. I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but there were a few moments that made me blush or grossed me out a bit, something that a book hadn’t made me do in a long time.
It’s worth noting that none of those issues necessarily constitute a form of criticism. In fact, they are part of what makes Miriam such a great character. But the sensibilities of some folks may not be able to stomach it.
What doesn’t work?
There’s not much to dislike about this book, but I did have a few nitpicky things. For starters, there are a few typos, which I was surprised to find in a book of this caliber.
I am well aware that me criticizing anyone for that is the height of absurdity and hypocrisy, but it did throw me out of the flow of the story a couple times when it happened.
The writing from the beginning of the story is great, but the first few chapters feel a bit stilted compared to the rest, which effortlessly flow from page to page. Whether this was intentional or we are simply watching Wendig get more comfortable with the story, it created a noticeable (small) shift in the story’s pacing. But like I said before, none of it is close to ever being poorly written.
- Intriguing plot filled with great characters
- Superbly paced
- No dead spots or need for “slogging”. An engrossing read from start to finish
- Occasional typos (as if I should talk)
While reading a book you don’t like is bad, it’s almost worse to read a book you do like right until it ends terribly.
That, however, is virtually guaranteed not to be the case with Blackbirds. The story reaches out, grabs you by the arm, and takes you on a wild journey that steadily increases in intensity until it reaches its fantastic conclusion.
Even if fantasy isn’t your thing, the gritty noir feel along with the incredible cast of characters make this one a must read for lovers of any type of fiction.
And to top things off, people like us who are late to the ‘Chuck Wendig is Awesome’ party can immediately pick up the sequel, Mockingbird… and you only have to wait a few weeks until the third book, Comorant, is released.
You can buy ‘Blackbirds’ from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or IndieBound. (Click any of the Amazon links in this article for easy access.)
You can also purchase a DRM-Free Ebook version from the publisher, Angry Robot Books (which is what I went with).