In the fifth book of the “wildly entertaining” (Kirkus Reviews) Miriam Black series, Miriam continues her journey to find answers on how to change her fate and begin to make right some of what she’s done wrong.
Armed with new knowledge that suggests a great sacrifice must be made to change her fate, Miriam continues her quest and learns that she must undo the tragedies of her past to move forward.
One such tragedy is Wren, who is now a teen caught up in a bad relationship with the forces that haunt Miriam and has become a killer, just like Miriam. Black must try to save the girl, but what’s ahead is something she thought impossible...
About the Author
Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He’s the author of many published novels, including but not limited to: Blackbirds, The Blue Blazes, the YA Heartland series, and the New York Times bestselling series Star Wars: Aftermath. He is cowriter of the short film Pandemic and the Emmy Award–nominated digital narrative Collapsus. Wendig has contributed over two million words to the game industry. He is also well known for his profane-yet-practical advice to writers, which he dispenses at his blog, TerribleMinds.com, and through several popular ebooks, including The Kick-Ass Writer, published by Writers Digest. He currently lives in the forests of Pennsyltucky with wife, tiny human, and dog.
Read an Excerpt
The Raptor & the Wren
The game: Egyptian Rat Screw.
The opponent: Rita Shermansky.
The location: Delray Beach, Florida, in the house that once belonged to the late Evelyn Black but now belongs to her daughter, Miriam.
The time: 7:35 PM, late August. Months after the events in Arizona.
It’s hot and everything is slippery. The air conditioner in the house is making a sound like a buzz saw trying to chew its way through a coconut.
Miriam’s mind is not well connected to her body. It’s like there’s a three-second delay—she wills her eyes to look left or right, she demands her hand move to the deck of cards on the table, she urges her hips to shift in this uncomfortable dining room chair, and each time she makes the command in her mind, three seconds later, her body wakes up like an old, slow dog before deciding to comply.
That’s wine for you.
She hates wine. It’s a mom drink. Basically vinegar. She thinks of it as a pickling solution—a bruise-dark brine of grape juice gone awry. But her mother had a lot of it. Miriam’s gone through it all, but now she’s settled into the same habit: going to the little wine store on Atlantic Avenue, picking out a bottle of something cheap and red, and coming home and drinking it all in one go.
It sucks. She hates it. It’s gross.
She does it anyway.
Miriam closes her eyes, lets her nostrils flare, and sucks in wisps of cigarette smoke from the cloud hanging thick about her head. It smells like life. Like death. Like cancer. Like all her synapses firing at once.
“You can fuckin’ have one, you know,” Rita says.
It’s a not-uncommon offer. With it comes the compulsory gesture: Rita jostling the pack of Newports and turning the tips of the coffin nails toward her.
As always, Miriam shakes her head.
“No,” she insists, the word sloppy as it gushes out of her mouth. “I’m trying to be healthy, I’ll have you know.”
Rita sniffs. “That explains the wine, then. A real tonic.”
“Wine is good for you. It’s fruit juice. And alcohol is antibacterial. Totally medicinal. Doctors say that—” She thrusts up her finger to make a point, and then she forgets what the point was going to be. “Doctors say you should just shut the fuck up and shuffle the cards, Rita-Rita-Smelly-Feeta.”
The old woman lifts her lip in a fishhooked sneer. Rita Shermansky is seventy-two years old and looks like if you took a skeleton, glued little veal cutlet muscles to each of the bones, then wrapped it all in soft orange deerskin leather. She’s fit as a fiddle. Taut as an anchor line. Puts the tan in tangerine. The woman plays tennis, golf, racquetball, some made-up shit called pickleball, and bodyboards. She also smokes like a house fire, drinks like a diabetic bulldog, and curses like the ghost of a pirate who has been wandering the afterlife looking for a treasure chest full of fucks that’s long ago been emptied. Her voice is a throaty, mosquito-wing whine. That whine perfectly conveys that shrill New Yawk accent of hers.
Rita dies in eight years.
Her death is ludicrously pleasant. She goes to sleep one night. She dreams of being on top of the Empire State building, the wind making her eyes water. Then death steals her away, gentle as a practiced pickpocket. She never wakes up. Lucky old bitch, that Rita.
“C’mon,” Miriam needles her. “Let’s play.”
“We have time?”
“Pssh. Pfft. We have time. Mervin isn’t going anywhere.”
Rita raises a drawn-on eyebrow. “Merv’s going somewhere, honey.”
“Just cut the deck.”
Egyptian Rat Screw works like this: Everyone gets an equal cut of the deck. Nobody gets to peek at the cards. You flip over cards, flinging them into the middle pile, one after the next, player after player. The goal is to win the stack of cards and to rob the opponent of theirs. If the card is put on another card of the same rank (number or face), you can slap the pile. First hand on the pile gets the stack. Or, if a player puts down a face card, the opponent has a number of tries (three for a king, two for a queen, one for a jack) to put down a face card, too. Failing to drop a face card means the player gets the stack, boom.
None of it has anything to do with Egypt, rodents, or fucking.
This is Rita’s game. She’s vicious. Fast like a lightning strike with card-dropping and hand-slapping. Worse, she hits like she’s trying to kill a wasp.
Miriam puts a four of diamonds down on top of a four of clubs, and in a rare moment of her mind and body pushing past the wall of wine to sync up, she slaps. Bam! First on the pile. Rita’s slap is close behind: whap.
Pain blooms in the back of Miriam’s hand. She recoils. “Jesus tits on a banshee,” she says, shaking her hand as if to fling the pain away. “You’re not killing actual rats here, you old bat.”
Rita shrugs it off, like she always does. “Honey, back in the day, if we played this game, I’d put on my old wedding ring and turn it diamond-side down. You get slapped with that, it’d pop the skin of your hand like a hole-puncher. Blood right on the playing cards—but we’d keep playing.”
Miriam takes another sip of the wine. It tastes like raisins and anger. She winces. “You rolled hard back in that so-called day. You have some kind of competitive Egyptian Rat Screw league? Smoky basements and money changing hands? Italian mob? Chinese tong? Illuminati?”
“Let’s just say I had an interesting life once.”
“C’mon. Tell me. For fuck’s sake, Rita, give up the goods.”
Rita’s eyes sparkle behind pinched folds of flesh as she takes a hit off her Newport. “You’re talking. Which means you’re shitting up the flow of the game.”
They keep playing. Back and forth. Face cards hitting face cards. Hands hitting hands. Stash goes this way, then back, then the other way once more. Rita’s winning. Rita always wins. Miriam’s drunk and slow and her hand is starting to throb, but Rita—despite this being her fourth gin and tonic (just a finger-flick of tonic)—doesn’t lose a step. And doesn’t seem to feel pain.
Finally, Rita takes the stack.
“Almost time,” Rita says. “Merv’s nearly off the clock.”
Miriam looks over Rita’s shoulder at the clock on the microwave in the kitchen. She has to squint to get the blue LCD numbers to hold still. It’s like trying to psychically control ants. Wouldn’t that be a horror show? she thinks. Ants? Yuck.
Finally, the time stops dancing. It’s almost eight. Rita’s right. Merv’s hour is nearly upon them.
“Lemme ask you something,” Rita says.
“What are you running from?”
“Not running from anything.” Miriam urps into her hand. “In fact, I’m sitting right here. I am as stationary as a motherfucking sea cucumber.”
“You drink at night.”
“I drink starting at noon. It’s very precise. If I drank before noon, then I’d be an alcoholic.” This is literally her logic. She tells herself the fact that she can wait to drink is a sign she is not a certifiable boozehound.
“You jog in the mornings.”
“I run in the mornings. Jogging is for old people.”
“You don’t have a job.”
Miriam snort-laughs. “Could you imagine.”
“Yet I still see it in those bloodshot eyes of yours. You’re running from something, honey. Maybe you’re running from it in your head, but running is fucking running, you hear me?”
Another puckered-lip drag off that Newport. Another plume of smoke. Miriam feels lost in it for a moment, like a boat in the fog. What am I running from? I’m not running. I’m just staying real still like a scared little fish, hoping the big bad shark of life swims on by. There’s so much she doesn’t want to think about, and trying not to think about it just means she’s thinking about it—Louis, his fiancée Samantha, Samantha soon dying by Louis’s hands, Miriam’s dead mother, Miriam’s ex Gabby, the little boy Isaiah, Miriam being out there in the Arizona desert, dead but not dead, birds stitching her wounds with their beaks like she’s some kind of Satanic Disney princess, then the news that she has a traumatic brain injury ready to blow.
“Fuck this,” Miriam says, lurching to a soggy stance. “It’s time.”
“It’s time. I’m going. You can come or not, I don’t care.”
Rita shrugs. “I’ll come. I still want what’s mine. But I hafta pee first.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Miriam Black has reached rock bottom. The shriveled up piece of hope that once dangled inside, has officially turned to dust. Now her nights are spent getting drunk off cheap wine and stalking the neighborhood to see who she can steal from next. Until FBI Agent Grosky tracks her down. It seems someone created a subreddit for a woman called the Angel of Death. A woman who looks a lot like Miriam. She's become an urban legend. Cell phone footage shows a grainy image of Miriam with a flock of birds at her call. And that's not all, they've tracked her all the way back to the Caldecott School murders. Furious that she's been exposed to the world, the final blow comes when Grosky informs her there is a copycat killer on the loose. One that is dressing like Miriam and reenacting her crimes. The past will come back to haunt Miriam as she hunts down the copycat, and the trespasser comes to collect his due. The rules are changing in this second to the last installment. Wendig makes you question everything you've started to piece together. How the abilities work, who the trespasser is, honestly I'm not sure what to believe anymore. It makes me need the last book, wanting to see how everything ties together. It's a bold move, but I have no doubt Wendig will be able to pull it off. Miriam always leaves me craving more. Maybe it's the carnality of it all, the animalistic way she deals with her problems. She is a severely damaged character and I can't get enough. I keep waiting to see if she can finally find some shred of redemption for everything she has done, killing and destroying book after book. It seems every time she finds some semblance of balance, she's knocked right back down. But she keeps standing back up ready to fight. As eager as I am to see how Miriam deals with the new challenges she is left with at the end of this book, I don't want it to end.
Chuck Wendig's Miriam Black is back from a fifth, and semi-final (?) round. As with the other books in the series, The Raptor and the Wren delivers a healthy dose of wit, crassness, visceral action, and emotional sophistication. The result is a fun, kinetic read that will leave the reader reeling emotionally and wondering very seriously how Wendig is going to bring this to a close in book 6! The Miriam Black books have, at their core, been about Miriam's recovery from her traumatic youth. Yes, there's supernatural fatalistic mumbo jumbo, but that's just a backdrop for Miriam to struggle against. We've seen Miriam discover a sense of agency (Blackbirds), the ability to care for others (Mockingbird), a capacity for forgiveness (Thunderbird), and the beginnings of self-acceptance and commitment to others (Thunderbird). In the latest novel, Miriam must find a sense of purpose and meaning - attributes that she once foreclosed on, and has been teasing at throughout the series. Of course, Miriam's quest for self-discovery and actualization is never a simple affair; only through literal battle with her demons is Miriam able to truly grow. As in Thunderbird, we see major expansions of Miriam's powers in this book. As Miriam learns to control and experience the world through birds, Wendig plays with perception and sensation, creating some of the book's most entertaining moments. This book also introduces new elements to the world of the supernatural by revisiting characters from past books in a new light. The continuation of Wren's story is tragic and unsettling; the continuation of Harriett's is pure nightmare fuel. Despite having a plot that flies of the rails almost immediately, Wendig keeps the story itself tight and relationship driven. The interweaving of Grosky, Louis, and Samantha into the tension between Miriam and Wren highlights issues of morality, obligation, and how people decide which relationships to maintain and which to leave behind. The writing of these relationships is top notch, and the new depths for Louis and Wren as characters are rewarding to read. This is by far the most bittersweet ending to a Miriam Black book, and as a reader I struggle with the directions I hope for the story to go. Despite her growth, the book ends with a challenge to Miriam - can she really push through her anger, forgive those who have hurt her, and make good on her commitments and obligations, or will she retreat into the self-destructive shell she wandered the world in in Blackbirds? For now, only Chuck knows. P.S. There is no more eloquent descriptor of the state of Florida than America's "Land-Wang".
Thanks to Saga Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review! I'm floored that a book that was mostly filler could be so much fun! I mean, fun isn't really the best word for it, because Miriam certainly isn't having fun. Losing people left and right, constantly surrounded by death and birds... it's not the best life, but she deals with what she's got. This book tied up a loose end or four (and some of those we weren't even aware were ends that somehow got loose!) and showed Miriam grasping more of her power. I'm a little disappointed in how the book ended, and it felt like a copout. I guess I can kind of see how it could push part of the narrative of the next book, which is the last, but it just feels... copouty. Copoutlike. Copoutish. Whatever the made up word would be. But still, I love how much Miriam has grown throughout the series, even though she's still got a filthy mouth (which I think is hilarious because she says what most of us are thinking, maybe in a cruder way, but she shares the feelings rather than internalizing them like most of us do). So overall, I'd say 3.5 stars. One star lost for the copout ending, and half a star lost for being MOSTLY filler/positioning characters for the final book.