Review: Blackbirds

I’ve read several of Chuck Wendig’s books on writing, and it occurred to me when putting my Reading Challenge list together that it might be an idea to sample his fiction too. Blackbirds didn’t immediately appeal to me, so I decided to scan through a few reviews on Goodreads and get a sense of how likely I would be to finish it; thanks to this fantastic 1-star review, I decided to give it a shot.

Cover of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.My initial struggle was with the use of present tense; my preference is for the detachment of the past tense. It’s hard to imagine how Blackbirds could work in any other tense though; here, the present tense hurtles us along on Miriam’s journey, while obscuring things which would detract from the mystery Wendig has created – for example, in the interview scenes that are woven into the main narrative the reader is left uncertain about the timing (is this past or future?), and the reveal offers a genuine surprise, and perhaps disappointment. The breakneck speed is also fed by the short chapters, which dare you to keep reading – the next chapter could be a prosaic description of a meal, or a massive revelation. Actually, given how the story veers between gore and grim awfulness, I’m not sure I would have wanted the pace to be any slower.

I didn’t like Miriam (I’m not sure anyone is supposed to) but I recognised her. She’s a bit larger than life in terms of some of what she’s gone through, but the events from her past that are gradually teased out (in a number of ways that avoid direct confessional) are believable in terms of the path that she’s now on, and the way she views herself and what she deserves out of life. What makes her different is the supernatural side; her ability to see, but not prevent people’s deaths. A visit to a Psychic hints at something darker behind her ability – but the onus is on reader to reconstruct how she might have gained it from the information given.

This works well as an individual story in the sense that there is a reasonably neat ending, and we have seen Miriam act, and change as a result, by the end. For me, what was interesting was the mystery behind Miriam’s powers, rather than whether she would save Louis, so in that sense the book was unsatisfying, as loose ends were left hanging. Of course there are further books in the series, but I’m honestly not sure I care enough about Miriam, and her secrets, to willingly spend any more time with her.

There are some books that I feel I can recommend without qualification, but this is not one of them. While well-written, and exciting, the tone (dark, gallows humour), and content (including dubious sex, and past trauma) are such that any recommendation would have to come with a heavily personalised advisory. If dark and grimy urban fantasy is your thing, however, it’s probably one for you.