“Everyone dies alone. That’s what it is. It’s a door. It’s one person wide. When you go through it, you do it alone. But it doesn’t mean you’ve got to be alone before you go through the door. And believe me, you aren’t alone on the other side.”
― Jim Butcher, Dead Beat
A psychopomp is, put simply, a guide and guardian of the dead. They’re pretty prevelant in classic tales and myths. Anubis, the Valkyries, Charon, Muut, the list goes on. For the most part, these extra-dimensional beings take care of the souls of the newly departed and help them transition in the world beyond this one. To my knowledge, none of them go through the pockets of the deceased for cigarettes and credit cards. But it’s not like Miriam Black asked to be given her ability to know how you’re going to die.
Cover art by Joey Hi-Fi
The main character of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds is a surly, sarcastic, capable, and manipulative woman. She scavenges from the people she knows are going to die within hours or even minutes of meeting them. All it takes is a touch, and pow – she sees every detail, down to the exact date and time, who if anyone’s around and what the last moment is like before the doors of life slam shut. She’s haunted by all she’s seen, and more than that. She’s been on the run for a very long time, and even though she didn’t know it, the thing she’s been running from is about to catch up with her.
You could have the most interesting setting in the known universe, but without good characters, the story goes nowhere. It falls flat. It doesn’t move. Miriam moves. She curses like a trucker, brushes off just about anything resembling real human contact, wanders aimlessly from place to place, would just as soon put a knife in your balls as buy you a drink – and yet she’s our heroine. I wouldn’t go so far as to call her entirely likable, but she’s such indelible and admirable you don’t necessarily have to like her for the novel to work as well as it does.
This is one of Chuck’s biggest strengths. His characters come across as people, even if they’re in direct opposition to the characters we come to like. The setting for the tale is an urban fantasy steeped in noir and the gritty semi-absurdity of Pulp Fiction or True Romance. But it could be on a space station or deep underground or in a suburban house and it would still ring true. It’s Wendig’s characters that make him such a seminal contemporary author of fiction.
The writing in Blackbirds is tight and focused. It’s laced with profanity and there’s plenty of sex and violence to be had, and it’d be very easy to let such spectacle overwhelm the underlying foundations. But this novel’s smarter than that. It doesn’t even let the bleakness and finality of Miriam’s visions overwhelm her humanity or humor. It balances extremely well between the narrative throughline of Miriam in the now, the steps she took to be where she is, and the people both with and against her, who could easily have been ciphers or mere empty vessels, punching bags for our heroine to bash around. But as I said, it’s smarter than that, and the universe of urban fiction is at least three magnitudes brighter for its presence.
Blackbirds is an engrossing read, at times incredibly funny and at others something you won’t be able to get out of your head long after you put it down. It is dirty and morbid and vulgar and wonderful.