Seeing the future is never a good idea.
Setting aside the question of whether the future is fixed or malleable, our linear existence dooms any glimpses of the future. It provokes us into acting in strange, contradictory ways—and so even if the future isn’t predetermined, we tend to fulfil our own prophecies. Miriam Black is a good example of this: in Blackbirds, she sees how someone is going to die the first time she touches them. She gets the date of their death and a vivid movie of how it happens. And every single time she has tried to stop it, she only helps it to happen.
Blackbirds is a combination of a thriller and a road book. Miriam can’t prevent people from dying, so she travels across the United States to bear witness—and rob the pockets of the dead. When she falls in with a grifter carrying a case of stolen meth, her life on the road goes into an inexorable tailspin towards a terrifying, cataclysmic confrontation. Miriam is, as far as she knows, unique in her ability to perceive deaths—and for some people, harnessing that ability is a lot more valuable than a case of meth.
This is not the kind of book that usually appeals to me. American road novels just don’t do much for me in general; I’m not American, nor am I much of a traveller. Blackbirds embraces that self-sufficient, run down, living from hand-to-mouth atmosphere that so many such novels take up. Miriam has no real home and just lives on the road, surviving off what she takes from the dead. She crashes in motels, hitchhikes with truck drivers, and hangs out with con artists. As far as books go, there is nothing wrong with any of these elements—they just don’t appeal to me personally.
So I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy Blackbirds, but I did. There is one reason for this, and one reason alone: I wanted to see Miriam win.
Chuck Wendig is clever. The question of whether Miriam can alter fate comes up almost immediately, and he gives us what seems like a clear-cut answer. Except it isn’t, and one of the subplots becomes Miriam’s desperate need to avert someone’s death. Not only does she want to do this because she thinks it’s her fault that he will die—she needs a win, more than ever, lest she finally succumb to depression and loneliness. Miriam is on her last legs. And as everything else goes to hell around her, I found myself needing her to win as much as she did. I became convinced pretty early on that she would win, that Wendig would let her change the future—the other option was inconceivable—but it was interesting to see how it happened.
Unfortunately, Blackbirds doesn’t evenly distribute this genius. While I like that Wendig gives some of the supporting characters backstories, some of them still seemed rather two-dimensional (Franks and Harriet spring to mind). The real problems, however, are mostly confined to the plot, which is sparse. Wendig tries to break up the monotony with flashbacks that allow Miriam some time for exposition, as well as the aforementioned detours into the other characters’ lives. However, this only serves to highlight the dearth of development of the main story. Miriam meets Ashley and starts working with him, ditches him, finds him again … it all happens in a very linear, dull fashion. There aren’t enough detours and digressions, few little sidequests where Miriam demonstrates other ramifications of her ability and lifestyle. Blackbirds is interesting, but it also comes across as all-business.
I will confess that I want to read the sequel, though. In that respect, Wendig did it right: he has me hooked. The plot is a little thin, and the characters—aside from Miriam—don’t help weigh it down any further. But I’m dying to know why Miriam has this ability and how it’s going to evolve. Blackbirds didn’t make me a believer, but it managed to sustain my interest and keep me reading—sometimes, that’s all it takes.