Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

March 28, 2013 4 - 4.5 Stars, Cat Winters, Death, Get Ready To Cry, Ghosts, Historical Fiction, Incredible Heroines, Paranormal 12 ★★★★

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
Published by Amulet Books on April 2, 2013
Genres: Historical FIction, Paranormal
Pages: 387
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
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.
1918 is a scary time in American history.  We are at war with the Germans, a people portrayed as closer to animal than human, while at home, we battle an outbreak of the deadly Spanish influenza: “Children dropped dead from the flu, boys got transported out of the country to be blown to bits, and the government arrested citizens for speaking the wrong words.”  Mary Shelley’s father is one those arrested, and she’s shipped off to live with her Aunt Eva in San Diego as a result.  She soon learns that her first love, Stephen, was killed in battle.  Mary Shelley can’t escape her grief, in no small part because Stephen visits her as a ghost.  His family lives nearby, and his brother, Julius, is a self-professed spirit photographer.  He makes a killing (sorry) selling ghostly portraits of the deceased to their loved ones.  Mary Shelley believes he’s a fraud, and she wants to expose him, believing that the only thing Julius truly captures is the hope of grief-stricken people who have lost loved ones to war or disease.  Aunt Eva, on the other hand, is a believer.

When I first read the synopsis of the book, I had no idea how the title might tie into the story.  Maybe it was a metaphor?  The answer (or a piece of it) becomes clear about a third of the way through, and it sends Mary Shelley down a dangerous path to uncover the truth.

Winters creates a fantastic atmosphere of fear.  It seems that death is lurking around every corner, and Winters’ descriptions of overrun funeral homes, ambulances with day-long waiting periods, and people with gauze-covered faces to ward off germs capture the feeling perfectly.  Mary Shelley is cautious, but not paranoid, while Aunt Eva is in full-on panic mode.  People drape themselves in garlic and onion to ward off the flu, and I can’t help but wonder what commonly-held beliefs we have today that will be debunked ten, fifty, or one hundred years from now.  If you don’t make a habit of reading the author’s notes, you should do so in this case.  I was particularly interested in how much of this time period was fact or fiction (yes, I should probably already know this!), and it’s clear that Winters’ research was thorough and meticulous.  I got a kick out of a restaurant that served “liberty steaks,” because no one wanted to be associated with German-sounding hamburgers.  It brought to mind the ridiculousness of “freedom fries” shortly after 9/11.  Remember when we were all supposed to be angry at the French?  The more things change…

The book is enhanced by the inclusion of old photographs at the beginning of each chapter.  Some illustrate the impact of the influenza epidemic.  Others are haunting (or haunted?) depictions of possible ghosts.  Or maybe they’re just a trick of the light.  Chapter 13 shows four people seated around a table with their hands resting upon it.  It also shows what appears to be a ghostly hand reaching up from the ground to grip the table.  Depending on your belief in ghosts, this photo may have a major spook factor.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds crosses over various genres: romance, historical fiction, paranormal, and suspense.  All are done well, but my favorite was Mary Shelley’s romance with the doomed Stephen, portrayed in flashback.  It is sweet and passionate and filled with longing.  It’s easy to see how Mary Shelley could be consumed by Stephen, both in life and in death.

Do you believe in ghosts?  I don’t, but Cat Winters makes me WANT to believe.

Note – I received an ARC from the publisher for review.

Review posted at Goodreads


12 Responses to “Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters”

  1. Robyn Jones

    What a fantastic review. I feel drawn to this storyline and at the same time, the doomed love story sounds like the very last thing I should be reading right now. My great grandpa died of the Spanish Flu of 1918. He felt bad in the morning, died that evening.

    • Go Flash Go - Read, Rinse, Repeat

      Oh my gosh! Yes, this might hit a little too close to home for you, Robyn. I’d heard of the Spanish flu, of course, but I had no idea how devastating it was until I read the book.

      As far as the love affair goes, yes, Stephen is dead, but somehow Winters was able to give it a positive resolution.


  2. Bookworm1858

    I loved your reference to “liberty steaks” and “freedom fries”-just makes me want to shake my head at our ridiculousness through the ages. I really enjoyed reading this book and learning more about the dark period. I also appreciated that the love affair ended on a positive note, a beacon of hope in such dark times.

  3. Kim (YA Asylum)

    I’ve heard a lot about this book and this review just makes me want to read it all the more! The fact it can cros into romance, historical, paranormal and suspense and do it well makes this book all the more appealing. Reading about Mary Shelley is also intriguing. Really great review!

  4. malvoliosStockings

    I can remember when my own friends called french fries “Freedom Fries” instead. In my head I was like, “Are you serious!” It good when we can make fun of ourselves tho. I loved that picture of the “Freedom Fries” by the way. Awesomeness.

    P.S. You actually made this book sound good when I don’t want to read it at all. Not my type of genre. I might consider it.

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