Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters


title:  In the Shadow of Blackbirds

author:  Cat Winters

pages: 387

format: Hardcover 

isbn/asin: 978-1419705304

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 5/5 [in the genre] or 9/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of historical fiction like The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, or Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.  Anyone looking for a beautiful ghost story.  Lovers of Agatha Christie.  

My Ratings Explained

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.

the basics
This was the book I'd hoped for when I read Asylum by Madeleine Roux.  It's a thrilling, romantic mystery with spot-on photo inserts and enough atmosphere to shoot a chill down your spine.  It centers on Mary Shelley, a spirited young woman struggling against the bonds of both traditional expectations for women and an epidemic that could mean her death at any moment.  Winters gives us a world too near not to terrify.  A world at war, plagued by a deadly illness, full of fear and people desperate for an antidote to unremitting death.  The result verges on Supernatural with its apocalyptic atmosphere.  It's a ghastly background for Mary's search: what is her love's ghost trying to tell her about how he died?   Not to mention the twisty murder mystery.  I promise you, you will not see the ending coming.  And I hope, like me, you'll fall in love with Mary's restless, determined spirit and her beautiful, tragic love.  It's a historical young adult novel as eerily beautiful and lingering as the antique photos gracing its pages.  

plot . 5/5
There's no dead space in this one (har har, I crack myself up).  We meet Mary as she's on a train south, away from the father who has just been jailed for making "traitorous remarks" and hopefully away from the deadly Spanish flu.  She finds refuge with her young aunt,  Eva, a widow who seeks comfort in folk remedies and spirit photographs.  Eva's idol, Julius, is none other than the brother of Mary's first love--Stephen, a boy gone off to war.  Here the mystery begins.  When Stephen appears in a spirit photograph, Mary thinks it's Julius' trick--until Stephen's ghost appears to her, ravaged, begging to be set free.  What follows is a breakneck investigation through soldiers' hospitals, mediums, photographers, and old letters to reveal the truth of Stephen's death.  Like an old tea cozy mystery, you're lead in countless different directions and the twists are unguessable until the very end, when all is revealed with a clash and a bang.  I couldn't tear myself away from the pages for an instant.  

concept . 5/5
My image of World War I is a soldier deep in muddy trenches, cowering against the threat of machine gun fire.  Winters takes us into a neglected, and just as terrifying, side of the war on the homefront.  Her historical accuracy and attention to detail is meticulous.  She paints a perfect picture of devastating paranoia, where threats come from abroad, from neighbors with German names, and from the air itself.  It's a world where one cough can mean death.  Where a letter from the army means a loved one lost.  With death at their feet, ordinary citizens are desperate for a sign of the afterlife, so they flock to mediums and photographers who promise a glimpse to the other side.  It's a chilling and perfect backdrop for a paranormal mystery and a tragic romance.  Winters renders it in such detail that I doubt anyone could read it without a shiver.  

characters . 5/5
Mary is instantly likable and admirable.  Orphaned by paranoia, misunderstood by a society that frowns on strange ideas and bright women, she perseveres in the pursuit of truth no matter how it hurts her.  She also sits at that odd precipice between childlike whimsy and growing up--with the growing up part coming far too soon thanks to a world in which innocence is quickly broken and death makes old souls of the young.  Her spirit, tenacity, and deep concern for others makes her lovable.  Then, Winters doesn't spare expense for the lesser characters.  Each is given a depth of character no mater how small their role.  There's the young, anxious aunt Eva who struggles with her sudden role as caregiver to a girl not much younger, whose fear drives her to old wive's remedies and the unscrupulous wares of trick photographers.  Stephen, Mary's love, whom we meet as a charming, whimsical boy in his letters and as a broken shell in his ghostly apparitions.  Even Julius, the swindler, who takes comfort from old pains in the opium dens.  Even the little boys playing in the coffins and the broken soldiers in the hospital linger with the reader.  These are characters of a historical novel, instantly recognizable to a modern reader.  

style . 5/5
Winters' writing is beautiful, to say the least.  Being set in 1918, it retains a bit of that Victorian elegance.  However, it's not just a pretty puzzle (don't worry, those of you who languished in your English classes!).  She captures the most beautiful and cutting descriptions.  Her dialogue is natural and just sprinkled with period-appropriate slang.  It feels like pages ripped out of someone's memory.  She's the master of creating an atmosphere of darkness and impatient fear.  Of frustrated love and longing.  

mechanics . 5/5
I couldn't end this review without addressing the photographs.  They're placed throughout at perfect times, to highlight some of the stranger, more unfamiliar elements of the story.  In particular, the spirit photographs.  It's difficult to imagine one without the visual, so Winters provides us an eerie glimpse of what these frauds were like.  The photographs also give a sense of the times:  people in masks, empty coffins, sad-eyed nurses.  They don't usurp the story; they just add another touch of chill to the atmosphere.  A brilliant touch to a brilliant historical novel.  

take home message
A chilling ghost story set in a time of tragedy, paranoia, and unrelenting fear, this book entwines mystery and suspense with the pangs of first love.  

Note: I purchased this copy.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

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