So I finished Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds last night and I wanted to share a few thoughts about it. I tore through that sucker like ice cream sharts through a lactose-intolerant’s burbling belly. Fortunately for me, it was much more pleasant than ice cream sharts. In fact, maybe more pleasant than ice cream, if you can believe it. So much more pleasant that I decided to get off my ass and write a blog post reviewing it.
I have a hard time finishing the fiction books I start, mostly because I have a hard time finding fiction books I like, and even when I do find one, I typically get about 30 pages in and then can’t keep my attention on it. Less of a problem for non-fiction – those I tend to devour more readily. Therefore, the very fact that I finished this one should tell you something about it. Truth be told, Blackbirds was an excellent, fast-paced read. Here are some of the strong points:
Relate-able, Realistic Female Lead Character
It’s not often I find female main characters to whom I relate or feel something for as deeply and complexly as I feel for Miriam Black. It’s even less often those same female characters are written by male authors. There are a lot of authors (male and female) out there that don’t really do the strong female character thing – they still go for the traditional damsel in distress, or the femme fatale who looks tough but it’s only for her sex appeal, and she ends up needing rescue by a man anyway.
And then there are the male authors who do try to write strong female characters, and while I think it’s great they tried, it’s not something all of them get right. Naturally, female authors I think have an easier time of it. I’m not trying to be sexist, and I’m not some angry uber-feminist so please don’t assume I’m your typical man-hater. I love men just as much, and I like things equal: fair and square. It’s just that, I have found a lot of male authors especially who try to write from the female perspective simply cannot get the details right on their strong female leads; there’s always something a little off, just a hair, or ten. Sometimes they depict their female characters with some sort of stereotype or caricature demonstrating a deep lack of understanding, or respect, or both. But usually it’s just a subtle and overly cautious, distanced narrative – wherein the sensation bubbles up into the reader’s brain that the author wants to speak from the woman’s perspective but is a little timid, uncertain, and their tenseness is palpable: certain details are accentuated and others, eliminated.
However, I can say that’s not the case with Miriam. Mr. Wendig has done a superb job in creating his main character, at least based on my opinion and my feelings about how I relate to myself. Since every woman is different, I suppose not all will feel the way I do. This is why I like Miriam: she is complex – someone who intrigues you, but someone who also maybe disgusts you from time to time, makes you shout at her while you’re reading: “hey Miriam, get a grip will ya?!,” and yet you find yourself hoping for the best for her, you find yourself want to put your arms around her and say “there there, it’ll be ok.” She feels real, her story feels deep. She’s not perfect, and she’s not a caricature. She is interesting and complicated, and she has a multitude of moods and feelings. She also passes the bechdel test; there are several other female characters, they engage in conversation with Miriam, and the conversation is about something other than a man. From time to time I was actually struck with the notion of: “hey wait a minute, how did the author know about this, how this feels or what that’s like? he’s a dude.” I guess he did his research. 🙂 Anyway, I commend him. It’s not every day you find a gal like Miriam, at least in my opinion.
Fast-Paced, Well-Timed Plot
The novel does not leave the reader lacking for details or depth, and it doesn’t string the reader along with long descriptions or drawn out back story. It is efficient, effective, and it will take you on a fast, hard, exciting, dangerous, and sometimes scary ride. There is enough suspense to keep you turning the pages long after your bedtime. Trust me. This is one of the few books I have not felt compelled to skip ahead on to read what happens next because too much detail gets in the way. Everything is well timed, and when there’s an interlude in the narrative, the interlude draws you into something equally as interesting.
Complex, Supporting Cast
It is easy in the sci-fi dark fantasy genre to find oversimplified, superficial characters. In fact, I think that’s one of the main reasons why I have such a difficult time finding good reads within that genre.
One of the things I think I like best about the characters in Blackbirds is that they are more or less complex characters belonging to 21st-century fiction, which is to say, they are not simple good versus evil, superhero versus supervillain 2D sketches. They are more complex than that, and some of them have more baggage than your mother on a transcontinental sea voyage. The main character AND the supporting characters all have flaws, and all have admirable or at least interesting traits in some ways. You see them all as human in the end – even the villainous characters. Like the very best recipes, there is complexity – sweet, spicy, dark with frothy bits of light bubbliness, a melding that renders it delicious.
The only real potential criticism I have currently is this: Miriam is supposed to be quite young (22 I believe), and yet her tone and voice feels much older, which makes it a little difficult to believe she’s as young as she’s supposed to be. But, I also realize she’s been through a lot of shit, and that tends to make a person grow up quickly. I also spend most of my time at work and on the Internet around a lot of adults who have the emotional intelligence of twelve-years-old girls, so I may not be the best judge.
Distinct Narrative Voice, Graphic Descriptions
One of the things I think I enjoy most about reading anything from Wendig is is unapologetically real language that I find both refreshing and amusing. While this book will shock and thrill you and sometimes make you cry a little, it will also make you laugh out loud.
I guess there are some who find it offensive, but in my local culture, where I come from, language is real like that: real, graphic, and visceral. I don’t mind it, but I suppose I can see how it might bother people from other cultural/values backgrounds. It is also possibly more graphic than most popular action movies; I know, I know, it’s a book, it is written description, how can it be more graphically violent than most movies, right? Most action movies are cleaned up violence. Violence made palatable: a single 6-inch-long trickle of blood from a chest wound. This is not that; it has graphic, violent, gruesome, and disgusting descriptions in it. They are here to make you feel something visceral, to expose you to those (some would say) negative sensations – disgust, discomfort, empathetic pain for the character. I’m ok with feeling those visceral things, I personally feel that the possibility of recognizing beauty and grace is only by knowing the existence of and embracing the distburing and the grotesque. If that’s not something you can handle, then you probably are not going to appreciate this book, and that’s your choice to have.
Disclaimer: I’m going to try and keep the spoilers out, but if you haven’t read the book and are concerned about spoilers, POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT: skip this section and go get the book. Like, now, son. So, most works of literature – whether they are movies, fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, have a point: a thesis, a perspective on life, a philosophical statement, an ending that satisfies. Even if that perspective is that there is no point. Sometimes they don’t though, and you’re left holding a steaming pile of shit in your hands wondering what the hell you just watched/read/heard.
Blackbirds does have a revelatory ending, and you do get to see the character(s) grow emotionally. The denoument is rather short and the wrapup is not entirely complete but that just makes going and getting book 2, Mockingbird, all the more worthwhile. However, the ending does make a statement, a philosophical one. It also gives you some sort of emotional satisfaction or closure, and I’d like to think it might even cause a person to do a little introspection about their own lives and actions.