My paperback copy of Blackbirds instructs me (on the back cover, at the top, near the spine) to “file under Urban Fantasy.” I am a fan of these labels, not least as a librarian (!), especially with a book like this one that deviates from my usual genres a little bit. (My usual genres, if you’re a new reader, are mystery/thriller and various nonfiction, especially biography/memoir and nature writing.) So, this is fantasy. Urban. With paranormal aspects. And a very dark tone.
Miriam Black knows when and how people will die. All it takes is skin-on-skin contact. Shake her hand, bump her bare arm on the bus, and she sees your final minutes or moments in a flash. This is, not surprisingly, disturbing and traumatic for Miriam, but she’s learned how to make it work for her. She describes herself as a vulture, not a falcon: she doesn’t cause death (indeed, when she’s tried to stop it, she can’t, and often makes things worse), but she feeds off it. At the very least, she’ll rob the corpse.
This has gone on for a number of years at the opening scene of Blackbirds, and Miriam has developed a cynical, detached outlook that allows her to view death without so much internal damage. Of course, she’s experienced trauma in her life, not all of it linked to her unique gift. But then two forces impact the carefully orchestrated system she’s worked out. First, she meets a man – a nice man, in fact – and shakes his hand, and sees something she’s never seen before: a death scene in which she plays a role. Next, she meets another man who knows what she is and what she can do, and wraps her up in his own con.
The chronology of this story jumps around, which is a format not all readers appreciate, I know; but I think it works nicely here. We follow Miriam through “real time” in main chapters, and spliced in between are interludes, in which we hear her story as told to a young journalist, and the stories of other characters as told to Miriam. Chronology is further confused by the time-travel element in Miriam’s vision. Well, it’s not time travel, but it is a brief view of future events: she sees what happens and knows exactly when, without the benefit of knowing where or why. So we know what we’re rushing up to, but not how to get there.
This is a fast-paced, tremendously suspenseful read. I read it through in one sitting. [Warning: make time for this.] The sense of time passing, of momentum, is great. I couldn’t put this book down and halt the progression of Miriam’s fate; the stakes were too high! While there’s a feeling of inevitability, the ending applies a twist. I loved the dark atmosphere, too. Miriam is damaged, foul-mouthed, crude, but good-hearted and vulnerable, like so many great hero-villains. [While not entirely like any of them, Miriam evokes certain elements of Jack Reacher, Dave Robicheaux, Harry Bosch, Lizbeth Salander, and Mallory.*] In fact, my pleasant-surprise-observation is that this book is more similar to some of my murder mystery/thriller favorites than I expected. I think I feared a gothic blood-sucking-evil-death darkness and/or horror elements that would be too much for me, but instead I find this a great crossover read, and will be seeking more Wendig. Apparently there is a sequel coming soon! I am anxious!
*Fictional characters written by, respectively, Lee Child, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Stieg Larsson, and Carol O’Connell.