Blackbirds is the first Miriam Black novel by Chuck Wendig. I recently listened to the audio book.
Miriam Black is a drifter. She moves from motel to motel, hitchhiking, drinking, and smoking. That isn’t what makes her special, though. What makes her special is that when Miriam touches another person skin to skin, she sees their deaths and when it will occur.
There are various ways to try to use such magic powers. Miriam hasn’t chosen the most noble one. She follows people who are about to die, gets close to them, then scavenges their money after their death.
This isn’t really by choice. Miriam hates her powers. She’s tried to use her powers for good, changing what she sees, but has never succeeded. So she’s given up.
Then she runs into Lewis, a trucker. When she touches him, she sees his death, a few months in the future: a bald man stabs him in the eyes while he’s taped to a chair in a lighthouse. He whispers her name as he dies.
Miriam is a very self-destructive woman. The book shows us a view of what makes her tick, slowly unwrapping how she went from a meek young girl to who she has become. You see her stacking bad decision on bad decision, digging an ever deeper hole for herself, but then you see the guilt and despair behind her actions and you can’t but pity her.
Lewis is one of the few truly kind people in the book. Not that everybody in the story is a psychopath asshole, like in Game of Thrones, but most people are not very nice either. Lewis, though, is a giant plushy bear. He goes out of his way to be nice to Miriam, and she… isn’t very nice to him in return.
Ashley Gaynes is a scammer. Miriam runs into him at a truck stop, and Ashley manages to force her to help him. Ashley is like Miriam, but without the guilt Miriam constantly feels. This has led him a few dark turns further down the road Miriam is walking, and he drags Miriam down after him.
Miriam Black is a supernatural thriller road movie in novel form. It doesn’t have a lofty supernatural world with gods (like American Gods) or vast supernatural societies (like the Dresden Files). No, it’s about a young woman who gets shafted with magical powers to see deaths she cannot prevents.
The book draws you in, and becomes harder to put down the further you get. The central question is: can Miriam really do nothing to prevent the deaths she sees, or has she told herself that? And that question becomes more pertinent as Lewis’s death draws closer and closer.
The one negative thing I have to say about the book: there’s a character called Ingersoll who is supposedly Dutch. I’m sorry, I was born and raised here and Ingersoll is not a Dutch name. Apparently, Ingersoll’s grandmother (‘oma’, at least Chuck Wendig got one correct Dutch word in) stalked the swamps of the Netherlands as a witch, but when she lost her status when she came to the US. There she was just a cackling old woman. Guess what, Chuck, we don’t revere mucking-about-a-swamp-cause-I’m-psychic people here either. We have some swamp-like parts of the country, but the cell phone reception is still better than in half the US and you can’t walk three steps without tripping over a bicycle lane.
The audio book has the added pain of Emily Beresford (the narrator) trying to do a Dutch accent, which comes out as something Polish-French-German. When I heard Ingersoll was Dutch I thought ‘well, I can hear she actually tried to do the accent, but boy, did she fail.’ A for effort, but you got it wrong, although I’ve barely ever heard a proper Dutch accent in a movie, video game, or audio book that sounded anywhere near correct.
One final word of caution, this book is violent. The subject matter — serial killers and supernatural visions of death — lend itself to it, but even so, the book doesn’t pull any punches. If you dislike reading about people getting sawed up while alive, this might not be the novel for you.
Backbirds is a great novel, if you like thrillers road movies with a supernatural sauce.