There are many downsides to being sick, especially when it’s during the weekend. One of the few good things, however, is the guilt-free opportunity it provides to lay in bed all day and read a book in one sitting.
In the case of my recent bout with the flu, that book was one I have been anxiously waiting to read for over three years: Thunderbird, the fourth installment in Chuck Wendig’s series Miriam Black books.
Thunderbird (Saga Press)
For those of you who haven’t read the previous books in the series (which you really should), Miriam Black is a woman afflicted with a strange curse. Whenever she touches someone, it allows her to see exactly when and how they’re going to die. This, along with a traumatic childhood, has made forming interposal relationship a challenge to say the least. It has also brought her into conflict with all types of people, from the supernaturally wicked to good old fashion thugs and charlatans.
But after years of hard living and even harder introspection, Miriam has had enough. She wants to get rid of this ability of hers—despite a growing addiction to it—and she’s getting close to someone who might be able to help. Unfortunately, her quest for a small degree of normalcy is upended by a cult of domestic terrorists, who she sees (via one of her visions) making good one of their deadliest threats.
As always, Miriam Black is a dark delight to read; a bizarrely perfect blend of nobility and nihilism, struggling with her own demons as hard as she fights those who would do harm to an innocent person or someone she’s pretending she doesn’t care about.
Wendig adds a new layer to her already weathered psyche this time around, giving us a version of the character who is forcing herself to look beyond a day-to-day existence and consider a different future. While this plays out broadly in her quest to get rid of her curse, it also takes shape in the form of Miriam trying to be healthier in general—like by not smoking.
Have you ever been around someone who smoked during the first few weeks that they quit? Have you ever been in that position yourself? Then you know how bad it can get. Now take that state of nerve frying frustration and add it to Miriam’s already jagged disposition. What you end up with are some of the best/funniest lines in a book series already filled with dark wit.
We also get to see Miriam’s powers in a new light. Not only are the threads from the previous books expanded, but the mythology behind the curse is explored via a truly horrifying—and occasionally sympathetic—lens.
Oh, and I hope you like birds, because this book has a crapload of them.
The Cormorant might be my favorite book Chuck Wendig has ever written. The character of Gabby, however, didn’t leave much of an impression on me beyond how her life (and subsequent suffering) affected Miriam.
In Thunderbird, Gabby is fleshed out from her role as a plot device into a truly fantastic main character—so much so that she nearly steals the show from Miriam a couple times. The two women compliment each other perfectly. Where Miriam is all about following her instincts (good or bad) or her current emotional state (usually bad), Gabby is a planner and a thinker. She keeps both Miriam and their quest on a narrow, wobbling track that would most likely careen into a pit of fire without her steadying hand.
And while she doesn’t necessarily serve as Miriam’s moral and emotional compass—because let’s face it, no one wants that job—she definitely makes the needle spin where it wouldn’t go before. She’s also much more sensitive and scared about everything Miriam has to deal with, which makes her resolve to face it head on even more brave.
Both women have been severely damaged during their lifetimes, but Gabby remains hopeful and resilient in ways that Miriam can’t or won’t let herself be. Lest you think that means Gabby’s soft, she is more than willing to call Miriam out on her selfishly nihilistic tendencies. The two make a great couple, even if fate doesn’t seem to keen on letting them remain together.
Also, hats off to Wendig for being a male writer who can craft a physically intimate moment between two women without making it feel like a porn scene.
If you’d told me that Wendig was going to introduced a little kid into the Miriam Black series, my first fear would be that he was going to make Miriam become all motherly and sweet.
I should have known better.
My other fear would be that I was going hate the kid, because kids in this type of story can feel like giant ankle weights on the overall narrative. Fortunately, Isaiah is not only cool, but a bit of a pint-sized badass. He’s also more mature than you’d expect due to some very tragic circumstances. His character was a surprisingly welcome addition to the story.
The Bad Guys
There’s not just one main bad guy in this one, although the leader of the militia group is charismatic enough that you will easily find yourself focusing on him…so much so that when the real bad guy shows up, it will knock you off your feet.
Yes, even after that warning, you still won’t see it coming.
Also, don’t assume that these people are dumb just because their doomsday cultists. I haven’t been this surprised at a villain’s expediency since reading a certain very famous comic many years ago (that I won’t name or it will totally give what happens away).
Miriam vs. Domestic Terrorists is interesting enough, but there is so much more to it than that. I won’t give away what it is, but let’s just say that this battle won’t be won with fists and guns.
Her fight with them serves as a stark reminder that even without the curse, the world is still going to be a severely messed up place for her to inhabit. She has been stained by the knowledge that people’s depravity that goes far beyond what most people see. Whether she can see how people die or not, the stench of death continue to will always cling hard to soul.
On a lighter note, there’s plenty of action for a meathead like me to enjoy—guns, explosions, lethal projectile vomit (seriously)…all types of good stuff. While all this is going on, Wendig winds up the narrative to a frantic pace and keeps his foot on the gas, careening toward an ending that is somehow depressing and hopeful at the same time. Then, just when you think you’re safe to let your guard down, he hits you with a coda that will have hacking up a green ball of phlegm that splatters across your iPad.
Okay, maybe that last part was just because I was super congested. But the final page is by far the best cliffhanger in the series to date.
What doesn’t work?
The stuff with the birds is cool—especially when it gets to a point that Alfred Hitchcock would be overwhelmed. But the immediate lead up to the final act gets a little navel-gazey. Everything is beautifully written, but it’s also the only time I felt like I could put the book down for a few hours and take a nap. There’s only so much I can read about bird psychology before wanting to know what the hell is happening back on the ground.
Also, I really wish we’d gotten to deal a little more with Gabby’s future. Miriam knows she’s going to die—and in a way that she can’t possibly change (as far as we know). Maybe Wendig is just setting us up for an even bigger heartbreak by molding Gabby into such a great character who is ultimately doomed. But I really hope the vision Miriam had of Gabby’s end—and their relationship—gets a lot more exploration in the next book.
Miriam Black is back and I couldn’t be happier.
Instead of resting on the framework he created in the first three books (which still could have made for a good novel), Wendig launches Miriam into an even bigger story, both with regards to the world around her and the heart beating inside her chest.
Add in some uncomfortable topical conflicts for the time we’re living in—along with the aforementioned lethal projectile vomit—and you’ve got yourself another gem in one of the best urban fantasy series out there.
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