After finishing Chuck Wendig’s excellent Blackbirds, I was all types of eager and excited to read the next installment of the Miriam Black series.
Although Mockingbird isn’t a “sophomore effort” in terms of Wendig’s entire body of work as an author, it is the follow up to a superb novel. That carries with it the very real danger of becoming derivative, boring, or exposing the characters and events in the universe that Wendig created to be a one-time flash of brilliance.
As I opened up to the first page, I hoped with every fiber of my being that this wouldn’t be the case. I had fallen head over heels for Miriam Black and wanted to see her story expanded and delved into at an even greater level. Would the answer to the oft asked question around here, ‘Is It Good?’, be as emphatically positive as the previous novel?
I’m very happy to report that despite not loving this one quite as much as the first book, Wendig’s cast and world don’t suffer any sort of “sophomore slump.” Instead, we are treated to a more richly defined universe, even more menacing villains, and a greater exploration into Black’s twisted and fascinating psychology.
If you thought Miriam and Louis were going to ride off into the sunset to a tranquil, happy life at the end of the last book, you clearly weren’t reading very carefully. Miriam’s darker nature and impulses make living the peaceful, routine existence that Louis has tried to establish for them a brand new type of hell for her to try and escape from.
But her vision of a grocery store shooting minutes before it happens leads her down a path that pits Miriam up against a whole new type of evil. Unlike last time, however, the methods and motivations behind these new adversaries are far more sinister and dangerous than she could possibly imagine.
From the very first chapter, Wendig quickly reminds us why Miriam is such a great character. She may have a heroic heart, but it’s still covered in layer after layer of gritty and vulgar snark, giving her the ability to tell off a store manager in a way most of us would never have the guts (or good sense) to try. Her sense of humor is even better this time, as well. There were multiple times that Miriam caused me to laugh out loud, including one thing she said that will make me never order wonton soup the same way again.
The action also starts off with a bang near the book’s beginning, grabbing you this time by the throat (rather than the arm) and never giving you a chance to put the book down. But well-choreographed action scenes that cause your heart to start racing can’t go on for an entire book. Fortunately, the usual attention to detail that Wendig pays to creating the people who populate Miriam’s universe is back in full force, as well.
With the exception of Louis and Miriam, Mockingbird introduces us to a whole new cast of characters this go-around. It would have been understandable if Wendig did a little bit of recycling from the last book, which featured an incredibly well drawn grouping of heroes, villains, and everything in between. Instead, we are treated to completely different yet even more impactful and interesting characters that play off of Miriam’s tortured soul with even greater purpose.
I thought that it would be hard to top the villains from Blackbirds, but the evil denizens in Mockingbird are sure to haunt your dreams even more. Imagine if Francis Dolarhyde from Red Dragon (the book by Thomas Harris, not the handsome movie version played by Ralph Fiennes) and a composite of every character Jessica Lange plays on American Horror Story decided to have a family together…then multiply that by three… and you have a taste of the type of malicious and viciously evil forces that Miriam is up against.
It’s clear that Wendig likes creating memorable bad guys, but he doesn’t skimp on the good ones, either. One character in particular, which ends up becoming one of Miriam’s allies, will have you loving and rooting for her before you even realize it. Even the characters that pass through the story for only a few pages are given enough life that they are enjoyably easy to imagine and identify.
Louis was the one character about whom I was initially concerned. He seemed ripe to become the stereotypical “really good but not bad enough” hero that gets pushed aside by both the reader and author as too uninteresting to care about. Fortunately, Wendig is able to add enough new layers to Louis to keep us invested him even without the lingering mortal danger that he faced in Blackbirds.
As far as Miriam goes, everything from the last book is there, but it’s spiked with further exploration into her past along with an even greater emphasis on the supernatural. If you started to unplug your interest at ‘supernatural,’ don’t. Wendig doesn’t prescribe to the Joe Quesada school of “It’s magic. We don’t have to explain it.” Instead, the supernatural elements are carefully and judiciously placed, never working as a safety valve or easy out for the real story. Instead, they intertwine beautifully with the dominant realistic aspects, making the “magic” of Wendig’s universe feel very real.
One example: Near the end of the story, a major supernatural incident involving a crow occurs. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been a complete deus ex machina used to help unwind a perilous set of circumstances. With Wendig, however, the seeds for this event were sown far in advance and cultivated throughout the story, making the event culminate with a feeling of excitement and wonder rather than an exasperated eye roll. Wendig has proven himself (to me, at least) to be a master of keeping the unspoken storytelling contract between author and reader when it comes to setting consistent and defined parameters for how supernatural elements are handled…
What Doesn’t Work
…which is why it was so frustrating when two real world elements (which Wendig also usually handles with care) seemed to not get the same attention to detail. Midway through the story, Miriam makes an important discovery through what is supposed to be detective work, but ends up feeling more like a series of ridiculous coincidences. It’s the first time as a reader during either of Wendig’s Miriam Black books that I’ve had to say “Sure, whatever…” and consciously raise my suspension of disbelief to continue on with the story.
The rest of the book is plenty good enough to warrant this small breach in the contract, but it’s still a breach. The other part I had trouble wrapping my head around was a result of one of Wendig’s greatest strengths: His ability to viscerally describe physical punishment and injury. When Miriam gets beaten up or hurt, it’s not written with sick, torture-porn glee. We feel every cut, every bruise, and every blow to the skull that she receives while trying valiantly to save people who probably don’t even deserve her help. You actually start to ache for her…
…which is why after a certain point, I started to wonder just how many concussive hits a person’s skull could take with them still able to get up and speak coherently. It gets to a point that Miriam makes Rocky Balboa look like a softy.
With Mockingbird, Wendig really cuts loose. This ends up giving us a story that isn’t quite as tight as Blackbirds, but also rewards the readers with some exceptionally heart pounding and terrifying moments. If your doctor wants you to monitor your blood pressure (like mine does), than do not take it while reading the last hundred pages.
While I’m not giving this one quite as high a rating as the first book, please do not take that as a slight. Mockingbird is a superb follow-up effort for this series. It proved that the character of Miriam Black has plenty of great books to be written about her if Wendig keeps writing them.
This series is becoming one of those that even though I own digitally, I may also have to buy the hard copies to shove in people’s faces when they say “I just don’t know what to read right now.” Even if stories about the supernatural don’t interest you, great characters will…and Wendig creates great characters like few others can.
- Miriam Black is back and as snarky, vulgar, and valiantly brave as ever.
- A whole new cast of characters, including some terrifying villains, are once again expertly drawn and developed.
- Careful expansion of the story’s supernatural elements without losing its grounded, gritty feel.
- One major ‘real world’ plot point felt much more unrealistic than any of the supernatural elements.
- Physical punishment dished out to the main characters feels a bit over the top.
With the third Miriam Black book, Cormorant, coming out on December 31, you still have enough time to get caught up. And if you think that less than a week if too short a time span to read a novel, don’t worry. Once you start reading Mockingbird, you won’t be able to put it down.