Dead in the Desert: Thunderbird by Chuck Wendig

You don’t know it yet, but you’re about to fall in love with a woman named Miriam Black. It won’t be an easy relationship, no siree. She’s going to enchant you with her psychic abilities, splinter you with her vicious tongue, lure you in with her firecracker attitude, and frighten you with cruel circumstances. Sometimes you’ll need a break from her all-consuming intensity and sometimes you’ll be so obsessed you won’t be able to let her go. The longer you stick with her, the more her icy heart will melt until she drowns you. And you’ll love every. fucking. moment.

Thunderbird is the fourth in Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series, and it’s the point at which there is a fundamental shift in everything Miriam thinks she knows about her role in the universe and how her powers work. No one is safe and nothing is sacred. The people she loves can’t give her what she needs, her enemies’ motives are murkier than a muddy river, and even the extent of her powers outpaces her capacity for comprehension.

In the first book, Blackbirds, we met Miriam Black, a crass, sharp-edged young woman as hard, rough, and boundless as the highways on which she hitchhiked. As a teen she was beaten nearly to death for unintentionally causing the death of her boyfriend and losing her unborn child in the aftermath, and as a result she gained the ability to touch people and see how they die. The violent attack shattered something delicate in her, and the subsequent years have only worsened her self-loathing. By the end of the first book she squeezes out some semblance of purpose and a flicker of happiness stirs in the ashes of her heart, but the events of Mockingbird smother that flame in the worst ways possible. Miriam confronts a family of serial killers going after damaged teen girls and learns not only that there are other psychics out there, but that if she can’t figure out how to use her visions for good, then she’s no better than them. She also discovers she can possess birds with her consciousness. An old flame from Blackbirds returns in The Cormorant with psychic abilities of his own and a hankering to burn Miriam’s life to the ground.

As Thunderbird opens, the only two people Miriam’s ever really loved—her mother and Louis, a trucker whose life she saved in Blackbirds and who returned the favor in Mockingbird—have slipped out of her life just as a new romance with Gabby, the one-night stand from The Cormorant, peeks over the horizon. Miriam is finally out of the cold of New England and in the heat of the Southwest tracking down a woman who holds the key to getting rid of her magic and making her a normal girl once more. But yet again, fate has other plans in store. After an incident in the desert with a scared child, his car-jacking mother, and a sniper, Miriam gets dragged kicking and screaming into a prepper cult of psychics and hangers-on hellbent on bringing down the government one bombed-out courthouse at a time. Her necromancy touch puts her at their mercy, but her avian connections might be her only escape. Death may no longer see her, but it has its eyes on everyone else in her life, and Miriam will have to sacrifice everything to protect them.

No longer is she the most adept psychic in the room. The orbits of other more strategic and aware players suddenly collide with hers and she quickly discovers they have a far greater grasp on using their abilities to alter the world to their desires. We had glimpses of this before—the Mockingbird killers in Mockingbird, the murderous man from Miriam’s recent past in Cormorant—but Thunderbird vastly and abruptly expands the psychic world. Even the Trespasser, the inscrutable, guiding voice in her head that takes on the appearance of people she’s directly or indirectly killed or maimed, has turned the tables on Miriam by both pushing her to her breaking point to perfect her skills and harshly punishing her for trying to get rid of her powers altogether.

Like its predecessors, Thunderbird moves at a rocket’s pace, yet it never feels frantic or hectic. Wendig keeps a tight grip on the plot, and while sometimes it can come off as a little over-controlled, you never get the feeling that he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. The main storyline could be expanded a little more. Looking back, the cult calling themselves The Coming Storm needs a skosh more set-up and their bloody resolution a little more room to breathe, but in the moment the action is thrilling, chilling, and riveting.

Wendig’s Miriam Black series is my favorite of all his works (the Aftermath series a very close second), mostly because Miriam is AH-MAZE-ING. She is the ultimate antihero, a badass bitch who gives no fucks and takes no shit. After everything Wendig has put her through, her attitude has softened, but her tongue is as sharp as ever. No one gets the final word over her, and even though she almost always gets bit she still can’t stop poking the bear in the zoo. Her experiences and reactions feel organic and wholly true to who she is. Miriam changes, matures, grows, but is still at her core the same person she always was, which, incidentally enough, isn’t the same as the impenetrable identity she’s carefully constructed after years of intentional isolation.

Of course, not everyone likes Wendig’s particular writing style. Every author, no matter how good, will never appeal to everyone. However, it’s also worth noting that his detractors are, more often than not, of the nerdly gatekeeper variety disguising as impersonal critique an agenda centered on disparaging his diverse and inclusive bent. Even from just a craft perspective he is a man of obvious talent and well-honed skill, so if you’re new to the Wendig fan club, take the negative comments with a hefty dose of skepticism.

For me, reading one of Wendig’s books, especially the Miriam Black series, is an act of complete absorption and total abandon. Your whole world narrows down to Miriam and trying to figure out how she’s going to get out of her latest death-defying scrape. Little else matters. While the book was in my greedy hands I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t even more from the damn couch. I needed to know what happened to Miriam Black as badly as she needed a nicotine fix. Do yourself a favor and buy the whole series. And if Saga hasn’t formally picked up books 5 and 6 yet, OMGYOUREKILLINGMEDOITALREADYINEEDTHEM!

Thunderbird is available now from Saga Press.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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