Book reviews: Blackbirds and vN

I don’t think I’ve ever been much for critical writing. I find myself panicking as I run out of adjectives, and worry about what to say. However sometimes, something comes along that I feel I should recommend to anyone who’ll listen. And in this case, two came along at once. I’ll keep this fairly brief, but if you want the tl;dr version upfront, the books I read are Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig and vN by Madeline Ashby. Both are from Angry Robot and both are highly recommended.

Blackbirds – Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds is a filthy book. I don’t mean in terms of violence and bad language (though there is plenty of both), but in terms of tone. It’s like a book version of Appetite for Destruction by Guns N Roses. Or that opening bit of Terminator 2 where Arnold takes out the biker bar, then steals a motorbike while George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone plays.

The story concerns Miriam Black, a drifter who can tell how people die just by touching them. And we see how a lot of people die. And it never gets old. Wendig gleefully throws in as much description as possible into these little passages, ending up with a book so gore drenched, I was worried it would bleed out on my bedside dresser. It’s not all grim darkness though, it’s all told with a dark, irreverent sense of humour.

Blackbirds is a brisk read, falling in at just under 300 pages. It does a lot within the brief word count. The throttle is constantly to the floor, and the pacing never lets up. I read it over two days. It’s a perfect palate cleanser for someone just coming off a longer read.

vN – Madeline Ashby

vN is something slightly different. Standing for von Neumann, vN centres on Amy, a robot girl being brought up by a human father and robot mother. The story starts with her eating her grandmother and keeping her sociopathic personality on a memory partition. I admit to being a little nervous at the start due to the prologue being somewhat exposition heavy, but it’s never dull, and once the rules of the world have been established, the plot moves along at a solid clip.

Like Blackbirds, vN is a novel where the characters are always on the move, but the pace is less breakneck. It takes more time at specific locations, including a very memorable scene where a major city has been converted into a museum. The story is as much about family and emotion as it is about science fiction concepts. It poses interesting questions about whether programmed emotion is as real as human feelings.

It feels like a modern classic sci-fi novel, and one that sits proudly on my shelf alongside genre greats like Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov.

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I’m afraid it’s a short one this week. I’m currently deep into my next proper writing project, and I had admittedly neglected to notice that it was Monday until I woke up earlier. Still, I can’t recommend either of these books enough, and I’ll be back next Monday with something entirely different.

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