Book Review: Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

I’m a sucker for amnesia stories.

You know the kind I’m talking about: Our hero wakes up in a hotel room with no memory of who he is or how he got there. There’s a pounding on the door, the landlord’s hollering that this week’s rent is due, the nameless protag opens the door, and the cops burst in, pinning him to the bed and reciting Miranda for the murder of so and so and OH MY GOD WHAT’S GOING ON?!? Dark City‘s a good recent example, but it’s something I’ve loved since Corwin woke up in a hospital bed in Nine Princes in Amber.

There are any number of acceptable and equally fun variations on this basic idea, a lot of them circling around the idea that the protagonist is investigating some blank spot in their recent history, trying to learn what happened and how they were involved — bonus points if it starts look like they themselves are the killer/criminal/victim they’re trying to find. I ran into a fun twist on this not too long ago in Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, a sci-fi detective story where the main character’s memory is fine, but his new body (not-so-gently used, one previous owner) has a number of dark secrets; it’s was a really good way for me to scratch that itch.

Chuck Wendig‘s come up with another one.

Let me introduce you to Miriam Black. She’s got a hell of a party trick: give her a little skin-to-skin contact (fingertips, lips, elbows on the subway, whatever), and she gets an instant, full-color, down-to-the-second replay (preplay? foreplay?) of your death. Pretty cool. Pretty dark. Pretty bad ass. That’s Miriam Black.

At least that’s what she wants to world to think.

Truth is, if you watch Miriam for a little while… if you listen to her talk (she loves to talk) and notice how she goes out of her way to alienate anyone and everyone with whom she comes in contact (emitting a stream of viscous, vicious, venomous dialog that fills a defensive moat only the brave or stupid would try to cross), you realize that that Miriam hurts. She blames herself for every death she’s ‘witnessed’; dies a little bit every every time a soul she’s touched shuffles off this mortal coil (no matter how much of a human stain they happen to be). She’s damaged goods, brother, and she’s getting worse, not better.

Miriam Black knows when you're going to die... and she will do anything to convince herself she doesn't care.

“Sounds interesting,” you might say, “but where in all that is your little amnesia fetish getting sated?”

Well see that’s the interesting bit.

Miriam, road-weary and cynical, has a chance encounter with someone… nice. Someone she likes almost immediately. Someone she might even become friends with; a granite block of a human being who’s maybe tough enough to withstand the wear and tear of the shit storm that is Miriam’s life.

Inevitably, she reaches out for a bit of human contact, and sees her new friend’s death.

Murder. Violent and nasty. In a month.

And, somehow, Miriam is involved. Somehow, she’s there when it happens, and does nothing.

That’s when Blackbirds got me.

I don’t know how to tell you what this book is — a paranormal sci-fi conspiracy horror murder-mystery roadtrip? Maybe. It isn’t even an amnesia story, not really, because you can’t really have missing memory of something that hasn’t happened yet.

Except… Miriam can.

How can I sum this up? How can I give you the one-line morsel that will send you off to find the rest of the meal?

If Phillip K. Dick had lived Charles Bukowski’s life, he might have written Blackbirds.

Might have, I say, because I doubt he (or certainly Bukowski) could have given half as much depth to Miriam as Wendig shares, and it’s Miriam that makes Blackbirds work. The gritty asphalt fantasy that makes up the plot? Don’t get me wrong: that’s great stuff, but it’s poor, damaged, desperate Miriam that brings the whole thing back to where we live.

You may not like her (she’ll be happier if you don’t), but you’ll care.

Just see if you don’t.