I loved it.
Miriam Black is like that creepy kid from The Sixth Sense if he were older and more inclined to dropping the f-bomb. Miriam is more macabre, too: Instead of seeing dead people, she sees how they die. The merest touch imparts to Miriam knowledge not only of how a person dies, but also when, information that comes in handy to a drifter living by the seat of her pants. (Think scavenger.)
Blackbirds opens with Miriam moving from one encounter to the next, a glutted vulture seeking out her next meal. She’s picked up by Louis, a kindly truck driver, after she encounters two rednecks. (Whom Miriam roundly beats. Thanks, Louis, but she don’t need no man.) Miriam accidentally touches Louis and receives a vision of his death in which he appears to be calling her name and looking at her over the shoulder of his murderer. Thus Wendig sets Blackbirds‘ story in motion.
If its premise is straightforward–urban fantasy chick with special powers gets into trouble–Blackbirds is anything but simple. In a postscript interview with Adam Christopher, Wendig admits that Blackbirds went through seven or eight drafts, including from a book manuscript to a film script and back again. (The visual style of the book is indicative of its time as a script.) And it shows. There is nothing rough or extraneous about Blackbirds. Wendig distilled the story down to its essence, and then sprinkled it liberally with profanity.
The care Wendig put into telling this story shows. His prose is whip-smart, each sentence a revelation in its own way, whether it’s creative vulgarity or unexpected observations, for instance, the “chemical stink” of Philadelphia (a smell this reader knows all too well). Each sentence builds upon the last, lending the story a propulsive feel. Readers will find themselves impatient to know what happens next. Blackbirds is the definition of a “page turner.”
Wendig’s prose is punchy, conversational. (If he speaks in any way resembling his writing voice, I would love to have a beer with him.) His dialog is natural; readers will recognize the rhythms of characters’ speech. If there is an exception, it might be Miriam herself, whose incessant patter sometimes reads as forced, or, perhaps, too clever, almost as if she’s a Gilmore Girl gone to seed. Still, Miriam’s dialog is in character. She isn’t stupid, and the endless string of wisecracks, vulgarity, and observations speak to her nervous energy, a trait indicated, too, by her chain smoking, drinking, and, ultimately, rootless lifestyle.
Wendig is at his best (and that is saying something) when it comes to characterization. Miriam is a compelling and charismatic protagonist, of course, but it’s with the characters that revolve around her that Wendig really shines. Wendig can summon up a sense of character with just one or two sentences. Consider Ashley Gaynes, a conman whose whole being is summed up in his shit-eating grin. Or Frankie and Harriet, a pair of odd couple cutthroats who make small talk about crazy old cat women. Their reactions to a story about a particular cat woman, something told almost in passing, points to their very natures.
Readers should be warmed: This is not a PG book. You will have by now noted that I’ve mentioned profanity several times, and there is a lot of it. If you don’t crack a smile at creative cursing, if you find such language tasteless, Blackbirds isn’t for you. Blackbirds is violent, too, practically from the first page, and it is graphic. I wrinkled my nose a few times, and I’m not squeamish; indeed, I like my stories bloody. Readers with weak stomachs should consider themselves warned.
Those concerns aside–and I don’t consider them my concerns–Blackbirds is a wonderful book. The story is well plotted, the characters, even the minor ones, fully drawn, and Wendig’s prose is outstanding. A sense of “writer’s craft” permeates the entire book. A dark urban fantasy, Blackbirds will be best enjoyed by readers who like their fantasy to have elements of mysteries and thrillers, and for fans of the quirky and offbeat. Highly recommended.