Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication Date: April 2, 2013
Source/Format: Library / Hardcover, 387 pages
Opening Sentence: “I stepped inside the railroad car, and three dozen pairs of eyes peered my way.”
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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 was on a train in my own country, in a year the devil designed. 1918.” When I read this sentence–at the end of the first chapter of In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters—I didn’t think much of it. The novel had a strong start, but I couldn’t foresee what a rollercoaster ride it was going to be. Fear not! It’s the good kind of rollercoaster ride. The kind that has your stomach leaping toward your mouth every few moments and you, by the end, nearly hysterical with happiness that you didn’t die, because, let’s be honest… it almost happened. And you loved it. (That got really off topic, didn’t it? Sorry.)
Obviously there’s no real threat of death in reading a book, but at times I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest. In the Shadow of Blackbirds radiates strength. The story is strong, the characters are strong, even the title of the book is strong, though you’ll never realize it until you read the book. *wink wink
In the Shadow of Blackbirds takes place in 1918, during World War I and the breakout of the Spanish influenza. I was so impressed with how difficult it was to forget the sickness while reading this book. Like someone living in fear of the influenza, the reader is always aware of its presence. It is there breathing down your neck at all times, waiting. It was extremely easy to sympathize and/or empathize with the characters in the novel. I actually forgot a few times that there was no sickness in my present life and pulled away when my family breathed too close to me. I love it when I get so immersed in a book like that, and it happened extremely easily with this one.
As if a pandemic isn’t enough, many people died in the First World War as well, so there was a lot of ghost talk in real life and throughout In the Shadow of Blackbirds. Cat Winters’ writing was effortless to read at all times. It was so apparent how much time she put into researching the time period, the sickness, the war, et cetera. I didn’t feel the need to fact check because nothing seemed out of place to me. I was able to put my full trust into Winters’ work, which made the reading process easier. To be honest, I needed that, because the content of the story is a bit… tough to swallow.
Mary Shelley, the main character, went through some pretty horrific experiences throughout the time of the book. I loved Mary so much. She is, to me, the perfect “strong” character. She wasn’t always the dictionary definition of “strong”, but she kept trucking on and that’s what stood out to me. Given the situation she was in she had the perfect amount of confusion/hesitation and certainty. I think I could read about Mary Shelley forever.
As you can see, I adored In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I found it on Goodreads sort of by accident and thought it sounded interesting. I never thought I would love it so much. In fact, I think it might be up there in “favorites” territory (even though I don’t really do “favorites”). I definitely recommend it to anyone. It’s creepy and weird and wonderful and sad. It’s so good and I hope everyone else loves it too.