Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) by Chuck Wendig

Miriam has a talent – when she touches a person she can see when and how they will die. And they will die that way – there’s no way to change it; she has tried and has herself been part of the cause of their death.

This has left her with a rather bleak view of the world as she travels around, following visions of the dead, living on the money she scavenges from the recently deceased.

But her talent has been noticed by a more ambitious con-man who is decides to blackmail Miriam to his own ends, dragging her along with him. Worse, the ambitious con-man has already reached above himself – provoking far worse enemies.

And Miriam has seen a death of a truly decent man; a man she wants to grow attached to, but what can she do with his inevitable, horrific death looming in front of her?

This is the second book by Chuck Wendig I’ve read, after Blue Blazes, and I now feel a vague need to track down the author, give him cake and a fluffy kitten and assure him that there are nice things in the world. This book is grim and dark and gritty. In fact it’s Grim and Dark and Gritty since capitals are definitely needed for this. The scenes are bleak and filthy and stark. The dialogue is harsh, takes-no-prisoners and a brutally clear look at the world. Nothing is white-washed over, nothing is gently covered and there’s nothing we don’t look at in all its detailed awfulness – be it the grimness of the world, of Miriam’s situation, the brutality of murder or the stench of death.

Part of what makes this book so stark in its grimness is that the writing is a true work of art. The descriptions, the exposition, the flow of the story all comes together to really give an excellent sense of time and place, with no detail untouched no matter how unpleasant. It’s the kind of writing that treads a fine line between being wonderfully evocative and being overwritten and repetitive. It’s a fine line – but it hits the balance perfectly which is extremely hard to pull off.

This ultra-grim starkness is also a perfect way of presenting Miriam’s gift (grim), Miriam’s past (grim) and Miriam’s current attitudes and beliefs (really really grim and hopeless). Even the interludes we have of Miriam explaining her gift add to the grimness by the way they end. There’s no positive in Miriam’s life, no reprieve and even this seeming intermission is just another step on Miriam’s grim past as a scavenger of the dead.

Her gift was really well presented – the horror and hopelessness of constantly seeing how everyone around her will die – and even when someone dies “well”, of, say, old age after a long and happy life, there’s a reminder that death itself is never pretty or pleasant. But not just seeing it – but seeing it and being unable to change it. Even seeing your own attempts to change

With fate so starkly presented to her as impossible to avoid, it drains any point of ambition or hope or choice from her life. What is the point when she knows, beyond a doubt, that nothing she does will change anything? That anything she decides to do has already been decided? That her free will is an illusion, her path already written and laid out in all its gruesome glory?

It makes Miriam a darkly desperate character. I won’t say she’s particularly original since Urban Fantasy has a lot of bleak and sad protagonists – but the writing style is better at presenting this bleakness than most.

Sadly, I don’t think the plot lived up to the power of the writing. There wasn’t a lot of action to portray this world – and there was a lot of cutting back and forth between the different characters and different times without much lead in which made it somewhat confusing. When it came down to it, I can sum up the entire plot in a paragraph (I won’t, because of the spoilers, but I could) which leaves a whole lot of book in which to do very little except be grim and dark and gritty, have some hallucinations, argue with said hallucinations, have a few really awesome (and grim and dark) action scenes and then topped up with a lot of (grim and dark) monologues. The core story – avoiding Louis/running into Louis/despairing about Louis isn’t really a story so much as an eternal self-analysis. Ashley dipping in and out feel likes an add-on to the story more than a story itself and the big bads are just kind of looming for most of the events. It needed more to the story than it had – the grimdark world isn’t sufficient on its own to carry the entire book.

Because of the starkness of the world, we have a lot of language use that is both less than pleasant and borrows on a few slurs. Despite that, it is surprisingly well done – because the slurs in a way fit the harshness and are usually self-referenced as part of Miriam’s stark, brutal view of the world and often challenged by people who are not quite as invested in Miriam’s nihilistic state. At the same time, I don’t think they were necessary or added anything except to try and show how very foul mouthed the foul mouthed Miriam was.

But the book is extremely erased – and we do have a fair number of characters here – so the complete lack of any minorities is pretty glaring. On top of that, Miriam is another female protagonist in a world with very very few women – we have one other female character who is a villain. But more than that – Miriam is a very directionless character. I can understand that – that’s kind of the underpinning of her character, she is drifting without hope or purpose in this grim, hopeless, purposeless world (did I mention it was grim?). But the men around her do have purpose and they, in turn, shape Miriam. Either by blackmailing and controlling her, or by being the object of her obsession or by being the big bad. She is devoid of agency or active participation in a world in which she exists to react to the men around her. Again, Miriam as a directionless character wouldn’t have been so bad if some of the people directing her were female. Even the female villain’s persona persona is predicated by snapping over a man – though I did like the scene and it’s extremely grimdark view of what drove her over the edge. This whole concept of a marriage entered into because of “it is what you do” and then the grimness of being so separate that her husband is just a source of mess to her – because that’s what he does, comes home to her clean home and create a mess). She is the pawn of the male big-bad and, tellingly, her male counterpart expresses sufficient agency to get out when the getting is good.

In the end, I’m left admiring this book more than I am enjoying it. The artistry of the writing, the wonderfully conveyed setting and the brutal starkness of the text makes of an extremely powerful, stark, emotive read. But while we have this powerful setting that is so well conveyed, the story itself doesn’t really carry it off – it feels almost like the story is there to convey this excellent writing, rather than the excellent writing being there to tell the story.