a review by Nalini Haynes
In the beginning of Blackbirds the light is piss-coloured and a prostitute is the victim of assault. Perspective change. Miriam is no prostitute, her john merely thinks she is. She waits, mouthing off. The john starts to die, choking during an epileptic seizure. Miriam does nothing to help him, explaining that even if she tried she’d only make matters worse. Once he’s dead, she takes his cash and leaves.
Later we learn that Miriam is powerful, physically able to defend herself from one man’s assault. She allowed herself to be hit, she allowed the black eye that resulted. No explanation was given for this, which bugged me, but I was willing to give that a pass because otherwise Miriam was very capable within normal human limits plus her one superpower.
Miriam’s paranormal ability is that upon touching someone skin to skin for the first time she can see the time and manner of his or her death. Miriam has no power over the death itself; she’s tried to prevent deaths until tragedy broke her spirit. She’s a vulture, appearing to watch deaths and steal from the corpses, but she doesn’t actually cause death.
Louis is a kindhearted man who pulls over to help Miriam when she’s being attacked by three would-be rapists. When Miriam sees his death – a brutal murder – she’s distressed and tries to escape but she keeps running into Louis. Another guy comes along with a definite agenda, it gets complicated…
Blackbirds is a dark urban fantasy with a female protagonist who is both strong and seemingly helpless, confronted with LOTS of gore while trying to find what caused her ability and how to deal with it. As the story unfolds, the reader learns of the traumatic event that gave Miriam her paranormal ability and of her struggle to change the course of events. The end of the novel is absolutely horrifying because of what is potentially foreshadowed.
I wonder how much of this story is a Mary Sue because a number of characters had ‘ordinary’ suburban upbringings from which they were trying to recover. While not overtly labelled as such, at least a few characters appeared to suffer from some form of mental illness as classified by the DSMV (a controversial issue in itself).
Some readers have lauded Wendig for writing a female protagonist while others have tarred him as misogynist for his rendering of Miriam and his preoccupation with penises (penii?) throughout the narrative. Having studied sexuality for my Masters degree, I believe penises bring less pleasure to women than men seem to think: more female orgasms are caused by – eh hem – other forms of stimulation than mere insertion of male part into female part. Perhaps if more male authors understood female sexuality better, their female characters would be less penis-obsessed; more women would appreciate their female protagonists and sex scenes.
Also, incessant dick jokes from a female point of view? Not so much. A string of dick jokes tends to imply a crudeness or at least a ‘try hard’ attitude from the woman. Miriam is trying hard to ‘overcome’ her religious upbringing so deliberately offensive vocalised dialogue can be expected, but the internal dialogue should tend to conform more with her upbringing.
However, any guy that makes a genuine effort to write from a female perspective earns kudos in my opinion, so kudos to Wendig.
A brief but compelling read, Blackbirds is like a traffic accident: it’s hard to take your eyes away. Definitely not for the weak of stomach but not so horrific that I couldn’t read it. I’d call it ‘soft but gory horror’ or dark fantasy.