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Friday, May 11, 2012


Author:  Chuck Wendig
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF) with a hefty dose of horror
Ratings:  Violence5; Sensuality3; Humor3-4
Publisher and Titles: Angry Robot
        Blackbirds (novel 14/2012)  
        Mockingbird (novel 28/2012)
        The Cormorant (novel 31/2014)
        "Interlude: Swallow" (novella in Three Slices5/2015)
        Thunderbird (novel 44/2016) 

This post was revised and updated on 7/31/15 to add a review of "Interlude: Swallow," a novella in the anthology Three Slices. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first three novels.

            NOVELLA :  "Interlude: Swallow" from Three Slices            
     Wendig tells this story in his usual flashback style, beginning in the present and then hopscotching back and forth between the events of the previous seven days and the current events. Miriam is on her own in this tale, which is when she is at her dark and existential best.

     As the story opens, Miriam wakes up in the dark in a strange place with a pounding headache and a tranquilizer dart wound in her neck. All she can remember is that she is searching for Mary Stitch, the woman who can supposedly cure her of the curse of visualizing other people's death scenes. Before she can figure out who kidnapped and drugged her, Wendig zaps us back to the previous week, when Miriam became acquainted with a local man named John Lucas in a bar.

     Miriam has come to this small Colorado town in response to a message from Madam Safira Starshine, the local fortune teller, who is also a tyromancer. In Miriam's world, you can expect that the divinations will involve a massacre as well as moldy cheese. Miriam describes the odor as "Musky, off, pungent as the congealed sweat on a dead man's scrotum."

     This story will be difficult to comprehend completely if you haven't read the previous MIRIAM BLACK novels because several characters from those novels (particularly Louis) turn up in various hallucinatory forms, and because the link between Miriam and the primary villain is a near-drowning episode that took place in one of those novels. (To give you an idea of the scope of these references, here is one of Miriam's fevered flashbacks: "Florida…Ashley Gaynes. Her mother. Not to mention the thing with Louis. That phone call…"

     "Interlude: Swallow" overflows with Miriam's colorful, cynical narration: For example, after she hurts John's feelings by calling him old, she muses that "it's hilarious how men act so tough like they're all steel rebar and beef jerky. In reality, men are soufflés: they puff up big but shrink fast at the slightest bump, shudder, or temperature dip." And here is a bit from a scene in which Miriam responds to being attacked: "On a resume, one of Miriam's talents would be seizes opportunities. Which she does now, launching herself up like a starving housecoat. Claws out. Teeth bared."

     Wendig has packed a complex plot into a few pages, and it contains several sharp twists and turns, so pay attention to the details. Any fan of MIRIAM BLACK will enjoy this brief jaunt in her company. Click HERE to read my compete review of the anthology Three Slices: Stories by Delilah S. Dawson, Kevin Hearne, & Chuck Wendig. 

     First off, let's give a cheer for this great cover art, which perfectly captures the tone of the novel and the attitude of the protagonist! Among the UF heroines crowding the paranormal fiction market today, Miriam Black stands out primarily for her indifference to the whole good-versus-evil conflict that generally has those other leather-clad tough girls up in arms as they battle the bad guys in order to save the world. In direct contrast to those stereotypically styled do-gooders, Miriam has never worn leather in her life and is pretty sure that she probably is one of the bad guys. She compares herself to "a discarded Styrofoam cup floating on a lazy, crazy river" and to "a piece of garbage floating down the stream." Miriam is profane, sarcastic, gritty, and gutsy. She isn't out to hurt anyone or cause any trouble, but she has learned to carry defensive weapons (e.g., knife, mace) and she doesn't take any guff from anyone. So far, she has been able to take care of herself quite capably.

     Ever since a traumatic teen-age experience, Miriam (now 22) has been able to visualize a person's death if she touches them skin to skin. She witnesses their final moments and knows exactly when the death will occur—but not where. For several years, Miriam has been traveling the country, hitching rides with truck drivers and sticking around if a death is close so that she can scavenge money and credit cards. She has unsuccessfully tried to intercede and stop a death, but by now she's given in to the inevitability of her "gift." She believes that "Fate's an immovable object...The course is charted. Fate's already got everything mapped out." Miriam keeps a notebook detailing her death "reads," and she makes ominous references to the fact that only a few pages remain in her notebook. She can't read herself, so she doesn't know how she will die, but she seems to be hoping that it will be sooner rather than later.

    The titular blackbirds show up in several variations throughout the book. Sometimes, they are crows. Once, Blackbird is the color of the hair dye that Miriam chooses over Vampire Red. At one point, Miriam explains that "Blackbirds...are cool birds. Symbols of death in most mythology. They say that blackbirds are psychopomps...that supposedly help shuttle souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead."  

     Wendig is a master at description. In this brief depiction of a roadside restaurant, you can smell the grease and hear the sound of forks scraping against stoneware plates: "Waffle House, a staple of the American South, is essentially a greasy yellow coffin. It's small. It's boxy. Half the people inside are little more than animated corpses, stuffing their mouths full of hash browns and sausages and the requisite waffles, their bodies bloating and swelling, their hearts dying. Miriam thinks it's awesome. She eats here because it's just one more nail in the ol' pine box; she can hear her arteries clogging, crunchy and crispy like the skin on fried chicken." 

            BOOK 1:  Blackbirds            
     The story opens as Miriam counts down the minutes to a death she knows is imminent. After she cleans out the lifeless trucker's wallet, she hits the road again. She is soon picked up by Louis, a hulking trucker who is the rare person who is kind to Miriam. Unfortunately, when Miriam touches Louis, she gets a vision of his horrible death—being stabbed through his eyes in a lighthouse, calling out her name as he dies—and his death is only a few weeks away. Miriam scrambles out of the truck, hoping that if she leaves him behind that her vision will not come true, even though she knows deep down that it will.

     Soon thereafter, she meets up with a good-looking young man in a biker bar and makes the mistake of rescuing him from a violent situation caused by his own stupidity. Ashley Gaines is a con man who accidentally discovers Miriam's secret and blackmails her into helping him. He wants her to identify truckers who are near to their death dates so that he can run a short-term con and take their money when they die. Although Miriam doesn't like the idea, she goes along with Ashley's plan. When the couple accidentally runs into Louis, Ashley decides that he will be their mark. Miriam doesn't want anything to happen to Louis, but she can't think of a way out of her situation.

     In the meantime, two killers—Frankie and Harriet—are looking for Ashley, who has stolen something from their mobster boss. The plot takes two paths as it follows Miriam as she tries to save Louis and the killers as they track down Ashley and Miriam, who is now in this up to her neck. These two story lines are interrupted now and then for pieces of an interview that Miriam is doing (at an unknown point in time) with a young man whose father's death was foretold by Miriam. In that interview, she talks about her childhood, with her stern, Mennonite mother, who called her "a sinner, slattern, slut, whatever" when she wanted to read comic books or watch television. Eventually, as Miriam always knew it would, all of these disparate characters come together in a climactic scene in which her vision begins to come true. 

     Late in the story, Miriam has an emotional scene with a psychic that shakes her to the core. All Miriam wants to know is when she will die, but the fortune teller looks into her soul and sees nothing but death and darkness.

     This is a terrific beginning for what looks to be a compelling new series. Everything about it is fresh and inventive, from the imaginative world-building to the cynical tone and coarse humor, to the well-developed characters, both primary and secondary. Harriet, especially, is a rich character who reminded me of Samuel L. Jackson's character, Jules Winnfield, in the movie, Pulp Fiction—always providing her victims with philosophical soundbites and informative tidbits just before she either kills them or beats them to death. Wendig's narrative is compelling as the action moves along at a fast pace, sweeping Miriam and her unfortunate acquaintances along to its bitter end. The humor is dark and sardonic, filled with pop cultural references that liven up the dialogue. I love Miriam, a societal outsider who courageously confronts the world on her own terms while dealing with visions that would drive anyone else to suicide. In Miriam's feverish dreams about Louis's imminent demise, she is frequently beaten with a red snow shovel, which, oddly, reminded me of William Carlos Williams' poem in which "So much depends on a red wheel barrel"—emphasizing the importance of the ordinary in our lives. In Miriam's life, however, even the ordinary becomes a weapon that can be used against her. 

            BOOK 2:  Mockingbird            
     This book is much closer to pure horror than to urban fantasy—even more than book 1. In comparison to that first book, this one has a much simpler plot and, with the exception of one female character, the secondary characters are not nearly as well developed. The story begins as Miriam hits the road again, trying to turn her back on Louis and the seedy trailer park they're living in on the Jersey shore. Although Louis always catches up with her, she keeps trying to get away from the "normal" life that he's trying to get her to share with him. She knows that she will never be normal, and she's sick of trying. 

     Finally, Louis gives in and finds her a "job" that is right up Miriam's alley—giving a death reading to Katey Wiznewski, a teacher at Caldecott School, a private residential academy for disturbed teenage girls. Even though Katey learns that she is destined to die a cancerous death in the near future, she befriends Miriam, even gives her a place to stay for a day or two. Meanwhile, Miriam is getting regular visits from ghosts and ravens who warn her that she has business to take care of at Caldecott. When Miriam touches two of the Caldecott girls, she visualizes them being tortured to death by a masked man, and she knows that she is meant to stop their killings. Time and time again, Miriam returns to the school to search for more clues even though she has been banned from the grounds and the security guards are on the lookout for her. That part of the story gets improbable fairly quickly.

     The plot unwinds violently and rapidly as Miriam gets closer and closer to unmasking the killer, but just when she thinks she's wrapped things up, the whole situation takes an ugly and dangerous turn. All during the story, Miriam is constantly getting bruised, beaten, slashed, and/or shot—to the point that it's hard to imagine how she can stay on her feet, much less fight some more. Just as in book 1, birds play mystical roles. This time, the plot revolves around talking ravens and crows, swallow tattoos, and, of course, the titular mockingbird. 

     This story is much less effective than the previous one. The plot follows a Horror 101 path, with sociopathic, one-dimensional villains who are easy to spot early on. The relationship between Miriam and Louis is difficult to understand. Louis is supposed to be a long-distance trucker—on the road several weeks out of every month, but he somehow manages always to be there just in the nick of time to save Miriam's life. He seems to care for her (and vice versa) but they rarely have much of consequence to say to one another. I have to say that I'm disappointed in this second book, particularly after the great character building and compelling action of book 1. If you like reading standard horror fiction, though, you might enjoy this one.

            NOVEL 3:  The Cormorant            
     After a minor backslide in book 2, The Cormorant roars back with non-stop, brutal action; rude, crude dialogue; and brawling, offbeat characters that are equal to or perhaps even better than the terrific first novel, Blackbirds. Book 3 drops us directly into the action and never slows down for a moment. As the story opens, Miriam has been kidnapped by a man and a woman who claim to be FBI agents. Because she is bound hand and foot, you might think that Miriam is completely helpless, but you'd be wrong, because she still owns the innate grit, audacity, and snark that have gotten her out of plenty of dangerous situations in the past. Miriam's captors command her to give them a chronological, detailed account of her adventures over the past few days, from the point where she killed a street mugger in Philadelphia right up to the present.   

     The rest of the book moves back and forth in time as Miriam tells her tale, interrupted repeatedly by comments from her captors and flashback scenes from her Carrie-like childhood. All the way through, Miriam's Trespassersspecters from her pastkeep appearing by her side, unseen by anyone by herself. These are, for the most part, dead people from her recent past, who ask her uncomfortable questions, castigate her about her past actions, and offer enigmatic advice about what she should do next.

     The story is divided into five geographically related chapters: 
     >  "Filthadelphia" (Philadelphia, as viewed in Miriam's world)
     >  "Mile Zero" (the southern tip of US Highway 1 in Key West)
     >  "Village by the Sea" (Delray Beach, home of one of the characters)
     >  "305 Till I Die" (305 is the area code for Southeastern Florida)
     >  "Los Martires" ("The Martyrs": early Spanish name for the Florida Keys)
     >  "Keys and Locks" (a metaphorical reference to the Florida Keys)  

     To summarize this plot would be to spoil it, so I'll just give you a generalized overview. After Miriam is kicked out of her Philly apartment, she heads for the Florida Keys to find a man who offers to pay her big bucks for telling him when and how he will die. Her experience with that man actually kicks off the primary plot because the client is not who or what he seems and because Miriam's every action after that point leads her into a labyrinth of hellish pathways that grow more and more dangerous. Naturally enough, the titular cormorant makes several dramatic appearances, along with other Florida birds.   

     I love Wendig's raw and bitter descriptions of Miriam. In an early scene in Philadelphia, Miriam "comes through the door like a black storm, like a funnel cloud sucking up everything it touches." (p. 31) Again in Philly, "Sun starts to dip around five in the afternoon. The tourist crowd thins as the bar crowd and folks going to see a show…start pouring in. Miriam, she stands there on a street cornerthe smells of cheesesteaks, cigarettes, and anger washing over her. While standing, she holds up a sign: WILL PSYCHIC FOR FOOD. Ten bucks gets someone a vision" (p. 43) In this Florida scene, she pushes a motel owner too far: "And here she sees she's reached Jerry's discomfort point. It happens eventually. Rare is the other human who doesn't mind being dragged over the deepening lines of impropriety while talking to Miriam Black. With her, every conversation is a landmine. Eventually: boom." (p. 227)   

     After the savage and bloodthirsty ending that resolves Miriam's most frightening conflict, the stage is set for the fourth novel, which will feature a road trip to yet another part of the country. Apparently, Miriam will have a partner (maybe two) for that trip, which may or may not be a good thing. Sometimes I think that Miriam is more dynamic and fascinating when she is on her own, dealing with the ghosts from her past and making her own, often disastrous but always intriguing, decisions.

     This is a terrific novel that is definitely right up there in breath-holding, page-turning quality with Blackbirds. Miriam tells her story in her usual profane, sarcastic manner, and she meets up with a series of quirky supporting characters who connect with her on a visceral level, some positive and some negative. As the story flashes back and forth in time, more and more of the blank spots in Miriam's character development are filled in, particularly in regard to her relationship with her mother. I recommend that you read the first two novels before reading this one because the plot relies heavily on events from previous books, particularly book 1. 

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