Friday 15 March 2013


Chuck Wendig, 2012
(February 2013)

I wanted to like this. I needed to like this. After all the fractured narrative, unreliable narrator, non-linear, multiple viewpoint, worldbuilding nonsense I’ve gone through recently this promised to be a straightforward but fun urban-fantasy thriller, with a bit of edge and a strong and spunky heroine.

The spunk’s laid on pretty think though. There’s just too much to swallow, to be blunt. Too much spunk. Huge splashing gouts of the stuff jetting endlessly from the page into the reader’s face, caking it in a pungent, dripping crust and obscuring the view of pretty much everything else. We get it, Chuck, she’s got a mouth and an attitude and she’s sassy and spunky, no need to subject us to this circle-jerk of characterization bukkake.

It’s fast paced though, which is pretty much the only reason I finished it. I forgave the early torrents of spunk as just the over-eager excitement of a teenage prom-date, desperate to make a good impression but wholly unable to control his more hormonal responses. I assumed that once it had shot its first load in the opening fumbles on the couch it would settle down a bit and develop a more confident, leisurely touch and a less frantic rhythm.

Nope. But by the time I realized it wasn’t going to calm down any I was already 1/3rd of the way through and figured I may as well keep on going. I’d come far enough that not achieving some sort of climax would have been disproportionately frustrating, even if I did have to provide most of my own stimulation; it didn’t even have the good grace to give me a reach-around whilst it kept up its jack-rabbit hammering. At least it was over with quickly.

I apologize for the puerile nature of this metaphor. It is a proper metaphor though, and the more frequent use of such would have been an improvement in Blackbirds, if only because it might have mitigated the rampant overuse of laboured similes. And by, ‘rampant overuse,’ I of course mean, ‘they’re used frequently and awkwardly enough that I noticed, and it became really distracting.’

It is also a damn sight more subtle than almost everything in the book. This is a very parochial, male, middle-American conception of ‘edgy’; the toy knife in my eldest son’s My First Kitchen playset is less blunt and projects a keener sense of danger. This is also a very parochial, male, middle-American conception of a ‘strong female protagonist’: basically an angry teenage boy with snappier one-liners and alternative plumbing. Oh, she can handle herself in a fight all right, she uses the word ‘cunt’ (once) and finds jokes about domestic violence and rape a turn-on, but she also caves in to the initial antagonist’s demands because – I am in no way misrepresenting this – he threatens to tell on her to her mother.

This is a boy’s book; it displays precisely the worldview and preoccupations of a middle-class adolescent white boy who’s spent too much time playing videogames and watching porn in his parents’ basement, and not nearly enough time outside interacting with real people. Swearing and violence and sex are cool, but only within a set of meekly defined, safely conventional limits. Girls are great in theory, but are a little scary in practice and are only to be trusted as long as they aren’t all girly and can act like one of the boys. Bad girls are really good at heart and secretly just want a nice guy to protect them. Parents are such a drag, life is so unfair, and drugs are bad, mmmkay?

I did, however, greatly enjoy page 241.

I’m not some misappropriation totalitarian who believes that authors should only ‘write what you know’, because the logical extreme of that position is the end of all fiction. Trying to explore beyond your comfort zone is worthwhile and to be encouraged and applauded. But this isn’t that. This reads very much like an author taking things he’s not so familiar with and forcing them to conform to patterns with which he is. An author who’s stuffing the square peg of the ‘edgy’ into the round hole of his comfort zone so that everything gets malformed and stretched* and that is, at best, unsightly, uncomfortable, and not a little messy. Sasha Grey and pals may all look like they love getting the money-shot in the kisser but that’s their job; in the real world you try blowing your wad in someone’s face on the first date and there’s unlikely to be a second. Probably an idea to double-bag as well, it’d be less embarrassing all round.

*I promise you that’s not a goatse link.


  1. So, it's not very good then? I used to enjoy reading Chuck's blog, but after a while you realise he's a one trick pony -- he swears a lot but dispenses essentially traditional advice. Sounds like his fiction is the same.

    1. There is something in there. Enough to keep me reading the first 100 pages on the assumption it'd calm down enough to be readable. Obviously not.

      "Swears a lot but essentially traditional" gets it perfectly.

  2. "This reads very much like an author taking things he’s not so familiar with and forcing them to conform to patterns with which he is."

    That.....that's a lot of blogs I know. Xcept they're not authors. They think they are. I'm not sure why?

    Meanwhile...that cover is a fucking Picasso compared to that previous post's cover.

    1. That cover is phenomenal. It is the single best thing about the book and I feel slightly offended that the actual contents fall so far short. One of the most glorious examples I have ever seen of polishing a turd.

  3. dude. you used the work bukkake in a book review. you are my hero!

    also, you get the reward for the funniest negative review I've ever read. This is something Lewis Black needs to read outloud on television.

    I don't mind adult language in a book. i don't mind a ton of sex. I don't mind violence, or violent sex. But Blackbirds did absolutely nothing for me. I'm in complete agreement that the coverart is the best part of the book.

    Plenty of people out there are going to love Wendig, he's make a zillion bucks, good for them, good for him. I'm not one of those people.

    1. Well, the bukkake thing. At the start it's a bit risqué, a bit different, a bit transgressive, but very soon it's just not fun any more and has become repetitive, gratuitous, and fairly degrading. You'll appreciate why it seemed appropriate.

      That said, yeah, good luck to him and people who like him. Apart from those too-frequent try-hard smilies this wasn't a badly written book. The prose was perfectly readable, I just really didn't care for the ideas it was being used to put across.

  4. Such a hilarious review! I agree with Andrea, this may be the best negative review I've ever read.

    At my age (45) I no longer feel the need to read "edgy" books that are merely that way because the author puts in "naughty words" or sex or a combination of those things. I don't mind a book having those inclusions, but unless you hang out with teenage boys or really crass people and spend a lot of time at the knock-up shops, rampant swearing and constant sex is not really a part of every day life, which makes relating to characters like this nearly impossible.

    And while it can be wonderfully gratifying to let loose with a well-timed expletive, using the 'f' word or 'c' word as a regular part of one's dialogue makes you really annoying and juvenile. I read a fantasy novella a few years ago where one character literally, I kid you not, used a version of the 'f' word in every sentence of dialogue he spoke. It threw me so far out of the world the author was trying to create because the character was such an anomaly and because it gave this ultra modern American feel to a book that was supposed to be in a fantasy world set on another planet. Too weird. And lazy too.