Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
Published: Angry Robot Books (2012)
Series: Book 1 of Miriam Black
The Book:
Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. She merely needs to touch you — skin to skin contact — and she knows how and when you’ll die.  But when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.”

This is the first novel I’ve read by Chuck Wendig, and it kicks off a series of three books about Miriam Black.

My Thoughts:

I think that a lot of whether one likes Blackbirds or not may come down to one’s reaction to the heroine, Miriam.  She’s definitely not an admirable character—a foulmouthed drifter that robs people who come to untimely deaths.  However, she is very aware that she isn’t a good person, and that knowledge is slowly destroying her.  She seems to be sort of a victim of learned helplessness, in that she hates herself and her situation and is convinced that she is completely incapable of effecting any kind of change to either.  This made her a frustrating character to follow sometimes, but I also really wanted to see her find some way to begin to rebuild herself and her life.

The conversational style of the prose in Blackbirds is clearly flavored by Miriam’s voice, though she is not the narrator.  The style is pretty simple and blunt, with quite a lot of profanity, which suits Miriam’s abrasive personality and sarcasm.  Miriam’s depressed, jaded view of life is reflected in the grungy descriptions of cheap diners, truck stops, and motels where she spends much of her time. There’s a lot of focus on trashiness, complete with descriptions of cockroaches and “piss-yellow” lights.  Due to Miriam’s ability, the story is also peppered with pretty gruesome descriptions of people dying.  The violence and dirtiness was unrelenting throughout the story, and it could be wearing at times.

Miriam’s story in Blackbirds is a relatively straightforward thriller, with the paranormal flair of her curse. Miriam’s involvement with Louis’s impending death is connected to her unwilling entanglement with a pathetic conman that is being chased by some over-the-top evil gangster types.  The tension and the action scenes seem like they would work well in film, which might be due to the fact that this version of the novel is preceded by a screenplay version. However, none of these side characters seem particularly nuanced: Louis is nice, the conman is sleazy, and the gangsters are basically evil.  This fits the cinematic nature of the story, but is less satisfying, to me, in a novel.  I enjoyed how the story ended, though, and how the events of the story enabled Miriam to regain some sense of power over her own circumstances.  While there is clearly more to Miriam’s story that can be explored in future novels, I felt that Blackbirds concluded satisfactorily as an individual novel.

My Rating: 3/5

Blackbirds is a very grungy story featuring a deeply flawed protagonist—vulgar, unkind Miriam Black is not an easy heroine to like.  I appreciated that her negative traits are acknowledged in the story, though, and that she is not happy with the person that she has become.  A major question throughout the story concerns whether she is capable of improving herself and her situation, or if ‘fate’ will have the last word. The story is mostly a relatively straightforward thriller, one with a pretty large amount of profanity, general dirtiness, and violence.  Blackbirds sets the stage for more stories of Miriam Black, but it also works fine as a standalone novel.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro

The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
Published: Tor, 2000
Series: Book 6 of the Saga of the Skolian Empire
Awards Won: Nebula

The Book:

Kamoj Argali is the young ruler of an impoverished province on a backward planet. To keep her people from starving, she has agreed to marry Jax Ironbridge, the boorish and brutal ruler of a prosperous province. But before Argali and Ironbridge are wed, a mysterious stranger from a distant planet sweeps in and forces Kamoj into marriage, throwing her world into utter chaos.” –

I read the first novel of this series, Primary Inversion, about fifteen or so years ago.  Since then, I have read Catch the Lightning (I think not long after it came out), and have wandered away from the series since. My tastes have diverged from science fiction romance, but I figured the 2014 challenges were a good opportunity to check out the Nebula Award winner of the series, The Quantum Rose.

The Book:

The novels that I’ve read of the Skolian Saga seem to stand alone fairly well as independent stories, but I believe it helps to be already familiar with the universe. In the case of The Quantum Rose, the mysterious stranger explains the lay of the galaxy to his young bride, so it is possible to understand the wider political situation without having read previous novels. All the same, I think it would help to already be invested in the situation between the Skolian Empire, the Traders, and the Allied Worlds of Earth.  While most of the story is driven by a romance on a backwater world, there is a return to interplanetary politics in the latter part of the novel.

Most of the novel is driven by a pretty conventional fantasy-style romance, where some of the science fictional elements enforce various romance clich├ęs.  For instance, the physical beauty of the lead characters—as well as the submissiveness of the heroine and the dominance of the male villain—are the result of genetic engineering.  There are also other standard romance elements to the story: a love triangle, a heroine who feels compelled to marry for the good of her people, and a traumatized hero in need of sexual healing. On an interesting note, though, the interactions of this particular love triangle mirror quantum scattering theory, which is explained in more detail in an essay after the novel. I thought that was a neat idea, but it didn’t help the fact that the romance was extremely predictable.

The novel was definitely a light read, but there were things I enjoyed along the way.  The main characters were fairly likeable, and the plot moved along at a nice clip.  Along with the romance, there was also a fair amount of action (occasionally involving Kamoj being kidnapped).  In the setting, I thought it was fun seeing how Kamoj’s home world had adapted old concepts into new social constructs, where they no longer really understood the original meanings.  I think this novel would probably be more suited to the tastes of romance fans (or science fiction romance fans) than it was to mine, but I still found it to be a pleasant story to read.  

My Rating: 3/5

The Quantum Rose tells the story of a young female ruler on a backwater world, who is swept off her feet by an off-worlder telepath of the Skolian Empire’s ruling family.  I think The Quantum Rose stands alone well enough to be read outside the series (though it does contain spoilers of previous novels), but some familiarity with the general setup of the universe would come in handy.  The story is mostly a conventional sort of romance, so I think it would probably fall more into the tastes of romance fans.