In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?
Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.
I’d like to thank Tina from A&C Kids for providing me with this ARC.
Truth be told, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is one of the few historical fiction novels I have read, so my perception and view of this genre has not yet been muddied by cliches and overused plot lines. However, I was expecting a rich plot that exposes readers into the 1900s, the war, and the horrors of the Spanish influenza that had taken so many lives from people of all ages while still maintaining the suspense and excitement of seances and ghosts from the pasts of the living. With this, Cat Winters does not disappoint.
The beginning is especially interesting, as readers get a peek into the complications of Mary Shelley’s life. Her father is in prison, accused of being a traitor to the country and she is shipped off to her Aunt Eva, who lives in one of the few places not yet infected by the flu. I loved reading about how the war and the influenza changed so many things in the lives of the people, the women especially. The transition from extravagant parties and ridiculously expensive dresses to working-class women earning a living through means that used to be horrific shows the difficulty of life for these people. It also explains why they were driven to seek out seances and ‘spirit photographers.’ Julius, the brother of Mary’s childhood sweetheart, Stephen, is especially popular for taking pictures of the living with spirits of their pasts who died mostly because of the flu or the war. However, Mary never believed in the pictures, not even when something so drastic and unexpected happens and shocks her into thinking ghosts and spirits might just exist.
An aspect of the book I liked was how Mary was so vividly attacked by dreams and spirit visitations and how these just propelled her to find out who, exactly, was responsible for the death of Stephen. Her inquisitive nature thickens the plot for the readers and shows the dark side of the people we may have trusted in the start. Throughout the book, I liked the balance of the thrill of ghosts and the horrors of war blended together to make sure readers were integrated into the world Cat Winters painted as well. Mary was a nicely developed character, and despite the doom and gloom that seemed to surround the book at every page, it was Mary who made sure twists were developed and the secrets were found out after a clever foreshadowing. There was a tinge of madness in the book as well, which was, surprisingly, the cherry on top of the cupcake. It showed the depth of the characters and explored the world that pushed these people into corners they never imagined they would be pushed into.
However, though the writing was beautifully done, I felt it quite slow in a lot of parts, and a pinch of boredom threatened to attack me in some of the pages. I could go without some events happening, and I think some scenes were too developed it almost seemed redundant, though I suppose I would prefer that over an underdeveloped plot. That part of the book took out its shine, which is why the book seemed too gloomy and repetitive at times. There was something that kept me going until the end, though, and I’m very glad I listened to that instinct because the ending revealed something so wonderfully secret yet so blatantly obvious I wanted to smack myself. I reveled in the way the author kept me in the dark and controlled my mind despite my being the reader, and kudos to her for that.
Overall, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is a well-written book which contains secrets that fit in like puzzle pieces into an exciting plot. Though it can be somewhat slow at times, the world-building is quite exquisite, and the foreshadowing: excellent.