Miriam Black can tell when you’re going to die. She’d actually rather not know, but it only takes a bit of skin on skin contact and she knows when, of what and maybe a bit of where. A nicely packaged vision that only takes a couple of seconds real time but lasts for as long as it needs to to show her the details.
The book opens with Miriam waiting for an unpleasant specimen of a man to die in a motel room so she can rifle through his wallet and take enough money to get a few more dinners & a few more motel rooms. This is how she lives, hitch-hiking around the US, surviving rather than living. She’s got a foul mouth and an attitude and underneath the bluster she’s broken but she’ll be damned if she lets anyone else see. The story is told both moving forward from the opening scene and through a series of flashbacks & dreams & other people’s stories. Miriam meets a trucker (who she actually likes, not a common occurrence) who’ll die in a particularly gruesome murder with her name on his lips – the climax of the thriller plot line. And a con man who has a proposition for her, and who isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. The flashbacks & dreams tell us how Miriam got here, why she’s broken & on the road and give hints as to how her power works & where it came from (as far as she knows).
One thing I liked about this book is the gender flipping of a couple of clichés. Most obvious is Louis the trucker as the damsel in distress and murder victim, with Miriam trying to figure out if she can stop it happening. Louis is also the catalyst for Miriam to become more actively engaged with her life again rather just drifting along waiting for death – in a “redeemed by the love of a good woman” sort of way (Louis is the “good woman” here, in case I’m not clear). Also notable, Miriam’s got a troubled past (well, duh) but Wendig avoids the cliché of rape. The bad shit that did happen to her feels appropriate for what it’s done to her, and thematically appropriate for the story rather than “woman with trauma, must’ve been rape”.
While the story is satisfyingly complete in itself there’s a sequel and there’s definitely hooks for a wider story. Miriam figures out more of the rules of her powers by the climax of the story. There’s also a (gruesome) scene where she talks to a psychic to try & learn more about her power – she doesn’t get answers but it’s clear that there’s something there to learn. Which kinda sums up that side of it for the reader too – we don’t know any more than Miriam, but it’s clear that Wendig knows where he’s going with this.
I liked this book a lot. It’s pretty dark, but with a current of optimism running through it. I thought Miriam’s cynicism was clearly presented as part of how she’s broken rather than the truth of the world. And the ending holds out hope that she might be able to make her own world better. It’s a fairly gruesome book tho – I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re easily disturbed by written descriptions. I’m squeamish myself, but when reading I’ve perfected the art of Not Visualising things so books (including this one) are generally OK. But there’s stuff in this that I’d not want to see in a film.