Detective tale Mockingbird pits a psychic against a serial killerS

Miriam Black has returned, along with her unpleasant precognitive power to see the time and manner of death of any person she touches. She's trying to settle into a normal life, but when she discovers a group of girls will be brutally murdered by a serial killer, she can't stay on the sidelines.

Mockingbird is Chuck Wendig's sequel to Blackbirds, which I previously reviewed. Blackbirds was about fate versus free will (warning, if you've not read Blackbirds yet, spoilers are ahead), and whether or not Miriam could change the horrible futures she saw for her few friends. When she attempts to intervene on behalf of Louis the trucker, who is perhaps her only friend in the world, she learns that she can change fate, but at a cost. For each life she saves, fate demands one in return.

Unwilling to juggle such weighty decisions, the beginning of Mockingbird finds Miriam working in a grocery store and living a quiet life with Louis, who is gone much of the time. This can only last so long, though, and not because of Miriam's power, but because she's not really the settling down type. Or the "working a regular job" type. Or the "be polite to customers" type. She needs to support herself somehow, but doesn't want to return to her ghoulish past.

Louis offers a solution. A friend of his wants to know how she dies. She'll pay Miriam for that knowledge. This winds the mainspring of the plot, because the friend, a woman named Katey, works at a private school for troubled girls. When Miriam accidentally comes into contact with some of the girls, she sees that they'll be tortured and horrifically murdered by a man in a creepy bird mask.

The issues Miriam struggles with in the course of the novel are what make Mockingbird more than just The Further Adventures of Miriam Black. She knows she can reshape the future, but now she has to decide if she wants to, and to what end. When she's faced with someone else's take on that same question, Miriam has to seriously question her place in the tapestry of fate. Given the ability to play God, does she have the right to? Can she trust herself to make the right decisions?

Of course, as that plot mainspring unwinds, it turns a lot of smaller gears. Miriam's relationship with Louis and his unswerving loyalty to her are tested, by which I mean she can be a real mean bitch to him. Katey befriends Miriam, which is especially interesting because of the way Katey reacts to the news of her own impending death. Until this point in the series, death has been an adversary, but Katey approaches things with a serenity foreign to Miriam Black. Miriam also travels back to her hometown, where we learn a bit more about her depressing childhood.

Supernatural elements take on a greater role in Mockingbird. Of course, Miriam's power is supernatural on the face of it, but some of her prior encounters with weird spirit beings could very well have been mental apparitions. Things take on a more explicitly paranormal bent this time around, and there are hints that cosmic entities have their eyes on Miriam, and that she may play a greater role than a vagabond ne'er-do-well with a penchant for morbid precognition. Those mysteries will have to wait for another novel.

Wendig's distinctive style remains strong – the pacing borders on manic, the voice somewhat breathless and frantic. Miriam is as sarcastic and vulgar as ever, a girl who is always on the make because she knows no other way. Here she is sparring with Homer, the private school's gate-guard:

"Hell no. You messed up. You're on the list." He leans out of his booth and lowers his voice. "And between you and me, it ain't a good list."

"But I'm a friend of Louis."

"I don't owe that dude anything! He's just a nice one-eyed white man who comes up here and does a little charity work for the school. We ain't war buddies or anything. He didn't save me from a shark attack. Shit."

"I'll give you money."

Homer's eyes narrow. "How much money?"

"How much will it take?"

He thinks. "Fifty bucks."

"Forty."

"Fifty."

"Fine."

"So why don't you hand it up through the gate now."

She winces. "Yeah. I don't actually have fifty dollars."

All those plot gears do not turn in a wholly straightforward way. What appears to be a simple "find the serial killer" story at first delves down a few blind alleys before unraveling in a bizarre and stunning way. And even when the story does move in a linear manner, it's highly entertaining. Miriam's detective method is to first become wracked with self-doubt, threaten to give up and go home, then find a source of information and commit felony assault to acquire said information.

I think I liked Blackbirds better than Mockingbird, but in some ways this felt like a transitional novel. Miriam, and the reader, and Chuck Wendig, are exploring the boundaries of her abilities and scouting out the path she'll take. It's not a straight or pleasant path, but it's interesting. I'm once again left looking forward to reading more about Miriam. I doubt she'll ever be the kind of character people cosplay at conventions, but she sticks in your brain all the same.

Update: Mockingbird publisher Angry Robot Books says, "Challenge Accepted." They're running a contest for the best Miriam Black cosplay, with some Angry Robot swag for the winner. It's a tight deadline (this weekend), so get your hair dye ready. We can't wait to see who wins!