The Short Version: Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. All it takes is a single touch, skin-to-skin, and she gets a vision of your death. Which is all well and good – she gets by, stealing and vagabonding – until she meets a nice guy who dies with her name on his lips. Suddenly, she’s in a race to find out if her talent is fate or if fate will bend to her talent…
The Review: Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black books originally appeared at a smaller press, Angry Robot Books, where they sat alongside stuff like Wesley Chu’s Tao series and Chris Holm’s Collector trilogy – and I can see the resemblance. And I think it says a lot about how far the culture has come in just a few short years that a scrappy series like this one could make the leap to big leagues and be embraced. May more publishers, regardless of size, take risks on scrappy series!
I didn’t read Blackbirds when it first came out, but it kept crossing my path and when I saw the stunning rejackets for the S&S/Saga run – as well as that helluva quote from Lauren Beukes on the cover – I figured it was time to jump in. So on a hot, muggy New York afternoon, I settled in to read about a feisty, dangerous, damaged young woman named Miriam… and I didn’t look up again until late into the (still hot, still muggy) evening, book done. Yes, reader: it’s one of those kind of books.
Psychic power via physical contact is nothing new, but Wendig delivers a refreshing version of the ability: first-ever physical contact delivers a vision unto Miriam of the contacted’s death but any contact after that is normal. It reminds me, more than anything, of the psychic half of Bruce Willis’ abilities in Unbreakable – not all-encompassing, not super-magic… just a little bit, just enough to potentially mess with your life. Make you consider what you’ll do with the information you’re given.
Miriam, of course, chooses to keep an eye on those who’ll die in unsavory ways and aims to be near them when they go, so that she can make an easy buck. It’s not the nicest way to live, but she isn’t exactly the nicest girl – hardened by a pretty rough life, some of which is explained in layered flashbacks. But wouldn’t you feel pretty raw, too, if you knew how every person you touched was going to die?
So it’s no surprise that, once she realizes that her presence in these people’s lives might actually have something to do with their deaths, she tries to remain a little slipped-out-of-the-world. Fate, of course, has a way of intervening though – and the novel’s tension begins to wind up when she sees a man die with her name on his lips. Suddenly, she’s involved whether or not she wants to be and the novel changes gears to become a thriller as we move inexorably towards this guy’s death.
But Wendig is doing more than writing a thriller: he’s getting into some serious questions of fate/free will. If what’s fated to happen is going to happen, does that mean it absolutely can’t be changed… or does that mean it can change if other things change too? It might be one of the most interesting pop-culture riffs on the subject since The Matrix.
Wendig also lets a little bit of the supernatural (or, I guess, a little more of it) slip into the back half of the novel – Miriam’s dreams, the twisted pursuers and their hairless boss, a sense at the end that the big questions of fate and free will are only going to become more involved as the series progresses. And I look forward to the progression of the series, because while Miriam is an instantly memorable character and a delightful entry into the canon of badass female leads (right alongside Ripley, Katniss, Lara Croft, Alexia Tarabotti, and so on), she’s still a little rough around the edges. We haven’t gotten the chance to spend enough time with her yet, for this novel tears forward with such velocity that stuff starts to rattle off the sides as the end approaches.
But there’s time. I’ve got book two lined up and can’t wait for three, four, and more.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A sharp, ass-kicking ride that transcends its pulpy thriller trappings with some deeply felt emotional stuff and some killer philosophizing on the role of fate in all of our lives. The whole thing threatens to fall apart as the end looms, but Wendig keeps it all together and sets the stage for many more Miriam Black adventures. And boy, we need more like Miriam – so sign up now and get ready. She knows how you’ll die, but I’ll bet you have fun along the way.