Thursday 10 March 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A double dose of Chuck Wendig - Star Wars Aftermath and Blackbirds

Chuck Wendig is awesome. Seriously, if you're a writer and you're on Twitter, go follow him now. He takes no nonsense, he offers lots of good advice and he's a passionate advocate for getting writing done, and getting it done now.

I've had a couple of his books for a while, sitting there simmering away on my reading list. But it was his Star Wars book that finally got me to crack open a cover and say right, time to read some Wendig.

And that was a mistake on my part. But let me tell what kind of a mistake in a while. First, the book.
Star Wars Aftermath bridges part of the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. We see an Empire in disarray, trying to regroup in the wake of the destruction of the Death Star, and meet a group of characters destined to play a part in this new changing world. Among those are a couple of familiar faces - Wedge Antilles and the admirable Admiral Ackbar - but mostly this is a new cast.

We have a Rebel pilot who took part in the assault on the second Death Star returning to her home planet to seek out her son once more, a bounty hunter with a history that touches on crucial moments in the war, and a man with a past in both uniforms trying to find a future in drinking his way out of the conflict.

And we have Mr Bones. Who is brilliant. A reprogrammed Battle Droid with a look crafted by that pilot's genius son and a personality filled with loyalty, brutality and snark.

All the elements are in place for a rollicking piece of space opera - and yet, I struggled with this book. First off, the writing is in a very particular style, that can be off-putting. Wendig writes the story in the present tense, with a short, punchy style filled with sentence fragments that gives it the feel of an action screenplay or a noir thriller. It makes it feel like the script has been pounded out by two fists, one to thump the words down on the page, one to hit them again when they try to get back up.

It's a deliberate choice to write this way and some readers will like the style, some won't. It certainly adds zing, but for me felt too stylised, particularly in a section partway through the book where every grouping of characters had a sequence of events which included someone saying "We have a problem". It felt too clever by half, taking me out of the book, and that's never a good thing. In addition, that short, sharp style of writing is also how every character talks, and it feels bogus. Some feel like they should be wordier, more verbose, but they all end up speaking in this clipped fashion.

What detracts from it, too, is that the book is filled with interludes - which take you off to characters that you meet only briefly and give you glimpses of elsewhere around the Star Wars universe, including some familiar names. Honestly, if I were to read it again, I'd skip all but the first interlude and come back to them at the end, as if they were deleted scenes from a BluRay. They distract, rather than contribute.

Even without those, there are more characters than it feels there should be. Ackbar is largely superfluous, feeling shoehorned in to provide a familiar name and to allow him to wonder if it's a trap. Wedge too doesn't feel like he has a key role to play, and we also get a hefty amount of time spent over on the Imperial side while they bicker and dither and don't really do very much. There's also a Rebel commando who gets a very dramatic introduction but does so little that he feels like a character that could easily have been written out,

There's one other criticism that Wendig has been getting a lot of with this book - in that the book also features characters who are gay. Frankly, I can't see what there is to complain about here - the characters are very natural, and if you can accept a world of Wookiees and Twi'lek dancers but can't accept gay characters, I don't think the problem is on the author's side of the equation.

Overall, I felt disappointed, so the book only gets 3/5 from me - one of those added purely on the strength of the fabulous Mr Bones. Really, get this character into a movie somewhere. Heck, give him a franchise, the Deadpool of the Star Wars universe. Less sweary, more inclined to repeatedly hit things just for fun.

So disappointed was I by Star Wars: Aftermath that I thought no, this can't be how Wendig rolls, let me just read the first few pages of Blackbirds to see if I'm missing a trick. And that's where I discovered my mistake.

I should have been reading Wendig a long time ago. He's brilliant.

Blackbirds is astonishing. Before I knew it, I was sucked in and zipping through page after page. This was one of those books that I just had to speed through.

It has the same style as Aftermath - written in the present tense, filled with sentence fragments and short, sharp, spiky paragraphs. Even the interludes are here too - but in Blackbirds, it works perfectly.

The smaller cast helps immensely. Instead of a bloated amount of characters floating around the periphery of the story, here you have a narrow, driven plotline which thunders along at the unstoppable pace of an 18-wheeler truck on a night highway.

There's lots of swearing, plenty of violence, raw sex scenes, and there isn't a character to be found who isn't messed up in some way. This is seedy America, in which lead character Miriam Black has lost herself in a bid to get away from her screwed-up decisions of the past, and to hide from the horrible futures she sees every time she touches someone skin-on-skin. You'll find her propping up a bar in any one of a string of anonymous highway stops, slugging rotgut whiskey and making Jessica Jones look like a high achiever.

Miriam, you see, is a psychic, but her gift - and her curse - is that the futures she sees for people are the last moments in their lives. Whenever she meets someone new, she sees how they are going to check out. And she's never been able to stop those things from happening. Worse, sometimes she thinks she's responsible. Imagine that. Imagine knowing the end of every person you shake hands with, or brush past, or love. That's Miriam's penance to bear - but when she meets a relative innocent in this world, a trucker who treats her well and shocks her with such a basic kindness, she sees his death, and her part in it.

What follows is the stumbling journey of someone who has no control over her life, bounced from one person's agenda to another, with ruthless assassins on her heels until she's finally forced to make a stand, to choose something to believe in, and to determine what she can really do with her talent.

The interludes here serve as exposition or back story and are short and sweet. One particular interlude features one of those assassins telling her back story and absolutely made me laugh out loud.

So read Chuck Wendig - but don't start with Star Wars. Start here, with this cracker of a 5/5 book. You won't be disappointed.

Reviewer: Stephen Hunt


  1. Great Review! I have to agree with Aftermath--I feel part of the issue might have been stringent guidelines--you have to include this bit here and that character there. It's a good book, hampered by outside demands to shoe-horn too much, perhaps.

    Also agreed that Wendig seems like a very cool guy, down to earth and such. Love to meet him sometime. Now, to read me some Blackbirds!

    1. Thanks! I did wonder about that - you never quite know what is going on behind the scenes, but particularly some of the interludes felt like seeding for something else. I'm glad my stubborn streak got me to read a second of his pronto, though.

  2. Great Review.