Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
She is violent and deadly, full of whiskey and sex and snark. Miriam can see a person’s death when she touches their skin, and the chapters alternate between men dying in front of her and a nervous interviewer probing the depths of Miriam’s talent. The main plot follows Miriam as she hitchhikes through the lives of two men, and the fallout of their encounters with her. Half of the people in pursuit of Miriam want to know how they will die, while others are horrified at the idea. You slowly learn Miriam’s background through flashbacks and vile dreams.
There is a sinister duo in a black car that crops up partway through the story. Most of the violence in the book comes at the hands of the female half of the pair. The women in this book deal out and receive their fair share of bodily harm; it doesn’t shy away from painting this in bloody detail. This includes Miriam’s visions of death. It dwells on the awfulness of living with the knowledge of the end of people around you. It’s a miracle Miriam isn’t more broken than she is. She can’t walk through a crowd or help someone when they stumble. Normal, everyday contact doesn’t exist for Miriam Black.
This is a case of a male author writing a female protagonist. Wendig points out parts of the female experience faithfully: Miriam worries that the trucker who picked her up may be a rapist, she is sexually harassed by some frat boys, she rifles through her bag as a stalling tactic. She is a well-rounded character because she is seriously flawed, and she fully acknowledges the consequences of her actions. Miriam hitchhikes knowing she could be assaulted or mugged, but she does it anyway, because that is what she wants to do. She is crass and crude and has a foul mouth. When she is captured or hit, it hurts. There is no explicit sexual violence in the book; people seem more eager to hurt or kill Miriam, but they do not choose to follow that path.
There’s a problematic scene where banter between Miriam and a sex partner includes phrases like “Can’t rape the willing,” and an uncomfortable scene with the aforementioned frat boys where Miriam spits out, “Do you think I’d be out here if I couldn’t take care of myself?” Having read Wendig’s blog, I think he’d no longer include these exchanges, and no doubt meant no harm by them. Now, Miriam has no filter, and this may be the way she thinks, but these exchanges aren’t balanced by other content. I like that her sexual encounters can be complex and difficult as well as casual; I’m just not sure that those exchanges added much. She also claims her injuries came from a physically abusive boyfriend in an obvious ploy for sympathy – Miriam is not a good person.
She is valuable to the right people, and there is a lovely spy thriller thread wound into the story. There is plenty of drinking, swearing, sex and violence, but it’s all in service to the story. There were elements of horror and a bunch of gritty details, but it’s not a horror story, or at least is as little a horror story as you could have about someone who sees death with every touch.