Thursday, October 17, 2013

Blackbirds

Take a close look at the cover on this one if you pick up a copy in person, and then another look after you finish the book; it's extraordinarily detailed.
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Fast and snappy (381 pages)
Publication: April 24, 2012 from Angry Robot Books
Premise: Miriam Black has been drifting across the country for years, trying to run from her visions. Whenever she touches people, she sees how they're going to die, and seeing that dozens of times a day has taken her close to the edge of madness. When she sees that a truck driver is going to die in thirty days while he calls her name, she's forced to decide whether she wants to fight a losing battle against fate again.
Warnings: sex with very dubious consent, gore, torture, dismemberment/mutilation, violent miscarriage
Recommendation: If you're looking for something dark and sharp-edged without an ounce of glamour, this may be exactly your cup of tea. The secondary characters don't always live up to Miriam's strength of presence, but it's a fun quick read.


What gives this one the grit of everyday life:

The story opens on Miriam picking a fight in a grungy hotel room just before the man with her dies. She's calm as she narrates what's going happen to him and pragmatic when she goes through his pockets for money to get er to the next stage of her wandering adventure. Her personality is the grimy-bright thread holding everything together-- she can feel old and defeated as she drinks to forget in one scene and playful a chapter later when she rambles on about her the symbolism wrapped up in her choice of hair dye. She swears twice a sentence on average, which may turn some readers away, but it matches what we slowly learn about her history over the course of nightmares and a lost interview about her powers. When she makes bad decisions or can't cope with basic interactions because relaxing around people is more than she can handle, it feels utterly realistic given her past and the way she's had to adapt in order to cope with it. This works particularly well when she's having sex with a con artist and, in one memorable scene, experiencing his death even as they throw each other around-- the scene structure works against how her power is described elsewhere, but it makes for a compelling look at just how damaged she is and how little faith she has in her own ability to change herself or the course of fate. Miriam can be mean and capricious and disillusioned, but there's a vein of black humor and a stubborn urge to struggle against fate underneath all that; taken as a bundle, it's impossible not to end up rooting for her.

The death visions themselves are never less than vivid and often seem stellar, driving home the way that the end of life is unpleasant and final-- seeing it happen over and over again has drained Miriam of illusions and soft edges. She sees people die in car accidents, or in hospital beds, and even the ones with similar circumstances manage to carry some imprint of personality to set each death apart. She might be accustomed to it and want to be callous, but she can't quite manage it when each death is distinctive and impossible to prevent. Her fatalism can seem dramatic at first, but as the story progresses, it seems impressive that she hasn't simply let her sanity fall over the edge. The entwined motifs of fate and death make for an excellent Experience has taught her that trying to save people only causes their deaths, but she can't help reaching out to Louis and wanting to save him anyway. She makes choices that move with and against her own nature according to the mood of the moment, all braiding together for a contradictory look at how she both sees herself as one of fate's many tools and is determined to retain that last inch of free will for herself. Her motivations are a realistic blur-- she smokes, drinks, swears, and sleeps around as a way of forgetting as well as because she just enjoys herself and because it's a release from her upbringing, not for any central or easy reason, and that helps her edge away from the mold of typical female protagonists in this genre.

Chuck Wendig's style seems immediate, and that lends itself well to tight pacing-- he writes in present tense and Miriam doesn't know the time of her own death, so there's an extra thrill when she risks life and limb in the moment. Whether she's fighting or diving through highway traffic, the adrenaline almost rises off the page. It's hard not to keep turning pages with so little dead space; every detail matters and there's no room for sequences of pacing and introspection. The fight scenes feel fast and brutal, with everyone involved taking a realistic amount of damage and dealing with the bruises and broken bones afterwards. They're properly messy, resolved not with elaborate martial arts moves but with sheer speed and brutality. It helps add to the tone of the world that Wendig is establishing, particularly when Miriam is being kicked around and refusing to let that pain, or any other problem, control her. Even when action scenes are part of backstory and we already know who lives and who dies, they still shine, and that makes it easier for the narrative to slide from one point of view to the next that might illustrate something useful.

The red pen:

Miriam's personality influences every aspect of the book, but that doesn't always leave much space for the secondary characters to shine. Louis Darling, the trucker whose death Miriam desperately wants to prevent after he shows her kindness, is particularly underwhelming. He's nice and has a troubled backstory (because almost everyone in this book seems to have undergone deep emotional trauma), but that seems to be the whole of his character beyond the various permutations of "nice." He doesn't like people who hurt women, he's kind of uncomfortable with Miriam but attracted to her anyway, is happy to offer lifts in his truck....he's essentially a Boy Scout in a big rig who helps Miriam out, and that's just not enough to sustain the time and focus that he receives. His existence is centered on Miriam's; even his past is a story that he tells by way of apology, and when he's deciding whether to help her out, he leans towards the best interests of a woman he barely knows and who has warned him away from getting involved with her rather than his own. He reads like a man's idea of a woman's fantasy of the perfect supportive man rather than a real friend, and that makes it hard to care whether he lives or dies.

The villains of the piece are better, but not consistently so. Frankie and Harriet, the first two we meet, work for Ingersoll, a hairless and preternaturally calm psychopath. Harriet has quite a few note-perfect moments, especially when she's telling stories-- her own past shines, but so does her account of cats eating the corpse of their owner. She's gloriously unbalanced and relies on the calculated sadism that made Ingersoll seek her out, but when the room is crowded she starts to seem cartoonish. Frankie is fussier, less obsessed with gore and thus more capable of making clean kills without toying with his victims, and his banter with Harriet shines so well that he seems lost and unfocused without her there to anchor him-- in the end, it's not even clear why he's in this uniquely brutal line of work. The real sticking point, however, is Ingersoll. He's good enough at planning to pull together a crew and stay one step ahead of anyone trying to oppose him, but writing a villain with icy calm as well as a habit of boiling people's bones to put bits of them into his bone-divination pouch requires a flawless balance that the narrative can't quite find. In some scenes he's a mastermind worthy of Hannibal Lecter, and at other times he's busy toying with his victims for the hell of it instead of getting what he needs and putting bullets through their brains. He falls into melodrama at about the point when he starts explaining his childhood to Miriam and never quite manages to come back from it, though his detached way of talking does make a good foil for her profanity-laden rage.

If the visions of death and the scenes of skating close to it mark the high points, the more general pieces of description fall flat by comparison. There's a fair bit of rambling about cockroaches in addition to the more overt gore involved in seeing people tortured, but not all of it fits together. One thug's story of how she cut her husband up and ran him through the garbage disposal is the perfect way to demonstrate that she's not quite right in the head, but scenes like the torture of a minor character who appears only in that scene feel too foo forced. Gore can make for a good grace note sometimes....if it doesn't feel like the narrative lens is hovering over the scene to establish that this is seriously and the villains are really awful people. It might work better if this was executed as a horror-esque movie (and it went through several drafts as a screenplay), but it manages to flop over the line into feeling overdone and cheesy rather than genuinely horrifying. The story has more than enough darkness to hold its own without resorting to shock value, and trying to throw too much gore in flat doesn't work, especially late in the book when anyone with a weak stomach has long since gone elsewhere.

The verdict: Blackbirds comes off as a great narrative experiment that draws on one character's bright-but-rough personality and electric pacing to hold itself together, but the overall structure and secondary characters can't quite hold their own weight.

Prospects: This is the first in a series, which continues in Mockingbird and The Cormorant, which is slated for release on December 31, 2013.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~For an entirely different take on death from the same publisher, try The Corpse-Rat King. The main character spends the entire book as a demi-dead creature and, like Miriam, spends a fair bit of time trying to understand what it means to be alive and how to be the one running your own life when the odds are stacked against that.
~Prince of Thorns partakes of similar darkness with far less fatalism, and Jorg's approach to the idea of destiny is about as far from Miriam's as it's possible to go.

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