The trouble with series, especially those that begin with a “bang,” is that they risk a decline in quality with subsequent volumes. Further entries in the series often aren’t as good as the first, that one that grabbed our attention. Maybe it’s the speed with which an author is expected to churn out new books. Maybe it’s fatigue, weariness of the same material. Or maybe the author tries to mimic what made that first volume successful, but in doing so writes a timid imitation of a story that was once unique. Maybe the 100 monkeys with the 100 typewriters are on strike.
I’m pleased to report that Chuck Wendig’s Mockingbird (Angry Robot, 2012) is a worthy successor to Blackbirds. Wendig suffers from none of the faults I name above, with the possible exception of the monkeys. (I really don’t know Wendig’s stance on primate labor.)
Mockingbird picks up, as readers might expect, where Blackbirds left off: On Long Beach Island, New Jersey. A year has passed since Miriam and Louis faced down fate. Not only has Miriam avoided using her ability to see people’s deaths, she also, miraculously, holds down a steady job. Which she blows in the first chapter.
Miriam is addicted not just to nicotine, but to her visions and to life on the road. Life with Louis is just too predictable. In a bid to satisfy Miriam’s cravings, Louis arranges for her to foretell the death of a teacher at an all girls’ school in central Pennsylvania. Of course, Miriam encounters trouble; the phrases “all girls’ school” and “central Pennsylvania” predict that. (As a former resident of central PA, I’m allowed to say that.) Someone’s been killing students, and it’s up to Miriam to stop them.
Much of Mockingbird will be familiar to readers of Blackbirds: The characters; the dialog, especially Miriam’s; the dark tone and violence. What makes Mockingbird unique–and, ultimately, successful–is Wendig’s decision not only to continue the story he began in Blackbirds, but also to further develop it. In other words, Mockingbird isn’t a sitcom treatment, in which the status quo is reset at the end. Rather, Wendig transforms his characters and their relationships to one another, and hints at the broader vision that will tie together each entry in the series.
Wendig is especially strong here in terms of imagery and setting. Wendig makes his home in central Pennsylvania, and it’s clear that he’s familiar with its landscape. His descriptions of both the lushness of the Pennsylvania countryside and the decrepitude of the towns that stubbornly squat in its midst are spot-on. There is a general air of gloom and decay that suits Mockingbird. Rain, the product of a hurricane coming up the coast, never ceases to fall, and lends urgency to the dire warnings–“the water is rising”–Miriam receives from her spiritual “advisers.”
Mockingbird sees Miriam learning more about her “power.” It should not surprise readers to learn that she’s not alone; there are other damaged people out there who can also “see things.” Wendig wisely keeps these larger developments cryptic, hinting at what’s to come. He has you on the hook, and he’ll play with you a bit as he reels you in. Miriam engages in conversation with “the Trespasser,” the force or forces with whom she communes, and begins to learn some of the “rules” that govern her power and its place in the world. Suffice it to say that there may be more to it than merely seeing how people might die–but the reader knows only as much as Miriam, and is just as frustrated and confused.
Miriam and Louis’s relationship changes by the end of Mockingbird. The romance that developed during Blackbirds is supplanted by something at once more mundane and stranger. Louis and Miriam appear bound together, but not necessarily in the kind of “lovers-friends” dynamic that (usually) defines “normal” couples. Louis, having dropped Miriam off at the Caldecott School, heads south on a delivery, only to experience a vision that tells him Miriam needs his help. He immediately turns around and, on the drive home, plucks a feather from the socket of the eye he lost a year earlier. (Wendig employs similar gruesome scenes to great effect throughout Mockingbird.) Clearly, this is not your average boy-meets-girl relationship.
If there is a weakness in Mockingbird, it may be in the identity of the murderer. Intuitive readers will key in on the culprit almost as soon as he or she is introduced. That said, Wendig has a few tricks to play on his readers, and, to that end, uses Miriam’s visions to great effect. Of course, Mockingbird isn’t really a mystery, at least, not in the sense of a “whodunnit.” The mystery here isn’t so much “who is the killer” as it is “what the hell’s going on with Miriam’s powers,” and there, at least, Wendig holds all the cards.
Mockingbird is a successful follow-up to Blackbirds. It stands well on its own and, if it lacks some of the manic energy of its predecessor, that may be because Wendig is taking the time to develop Miriam’s story, her past and future, both of which readers glimpse. Readers may expect more of the same and, in this case, I mean that in the best possible way. More profanity, more graphic violence, more spookiness, more Miriam. If you enjoyed Blackbirds, you’re almost certain to enjoy Mockingbird. Highly recommended.
See also: My review of Blackbirds.
And, apparently Blackbirds is coming to TV.