Earlier this year, Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds took me completely by surprise. Initially attracted by Joey Hi-Fi’s gorgeous cover illustration, I was quickly sucked into the story of Miriam Black, an opportunistic young drifter whose unique curse/gift allows her to see the exact time and circumstances of the deaths of the people she touches. She mainly uses this mysterious skill to loot the occasional bit of cash from the soon-to-be-deceased, allowing her to stay in motels and keep enough booze on hand to numb her many personal demons... until one day she sees one particularly gruesome future death scene in which the victim’s last words are her own name.
As much as I hate to see or use the phrase “compulsively readable” in reviews, in the case of Blackbirds it’s applicable as it’s ever going to be: a unique, tightly written novel you just can’t put down until you’ve read every last dark, gory detail. If you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time to rectify the situation because this month, mercifully quick on the heels of Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig already delivers its sequel, Mockingbird. The further adventures of Miriam Black, wrapped in yet another stunning Joey Hi-Fi cover? Well, “must-buy” is another one of those phrases I really don’t like much, but in this case...
As Mockingbird starts off, Miriam Black is settled in a (for her at least) strangely stable life. She has an actual address, for one, rather than drifting from motel to motel. Sure, her new residence is a doublewide in a trailer park full of losers and tweakers, but still—in terms of stability, it’s an improvement. Miriam even has a job, working as a cashier in a sundries shop on the Jersey Shore. It all seems much too staid and normal for Miriam, and sure enough, before the first chapter is out she’s losing it at a customer and getting canned.
As of Chapter 2 (“The Liberation of Miriam Black”) we’re back to normal, which in her case means vindictively storming back into the store she just got fired from to shake her former boss’s hand and get a glimpse of how and when she will die. That death turns out to be surprisingly bloody and soon, setting off another whirlwind of a novel full of darkness and violence.
If you’ve read Blackbirds, you’ll know what to expect from Mockingbird, and you won’t be disappointed. The setting and atmosphere are similar, with Chuck Wendig describing the grimier corners of present day New Jersey in all their glorious, boring squalor. He frequently points his lens at the dreariness we’ve learned to unsee in order to make it through the day: the mundane details of life on the fringe of cities, the motels and chain restaurants people pass through on their way to a real home.
Emotionally, Miriam is still (and in her own words) “a garage full of cats on fire,” making her a challenge to deal with even for the few people who actually wish her well in this story. She still tends to deflect anything and anyone that might come too close with hyper-cynical, cutting, profanity-laced combat-dialogue, “her mouth brimming with foulness the way a soup can bulges with botulism.” She’s not fun to be around, to say the least, but as long as you don’t need likeable characters in your fiction, you’ll once again find it completely impossible to put down her story.
In Blackbirds, Miriam’s strange ability to see people’s deaths was mostly presented as-is, but in the new novel Chuck Wendig starts to reveal some of its underpinnings and even ties these into the novel’s central mystery, making it an even more tense and gripping story. I realize that’s vague, but I simply don’t want to give away any plot details here because Mockingbird, a shocking, twisting beast of a book that’ll have you on edge throughout, is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible.
Sure, I could point out a few very minor negatives. The cheesiness of some of the chapter titles occasionally grated against the novel’s atmosphere. You could argue that these two books follow the same pattern a bit too obviously. Still, that’s all much less important than this simple fact: I tore through this novel in less than 24 hours, unable to let go until there were no more pages left to turn, and if someone somehow could travel back in time to hand me a copy of the next Miriam Black novel, I’d drop everything and read it right now. If Blackbirds hit you like it hit me, you need to get your hands on Mockingbird as soon as you can.