Publisher: Amulet Books.
Hardcover, 387 pages.
Release date: April 2nd 2013.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.
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.
Eerie and evocative with a richly engaging storyline and a plucky, spirited heroine, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, the stunning debut from Cat Winters is a compelling read that is as highly original as it is spine-shiveringly spooky.
The year is 1918, a year, which, according to our heroine Mary Shelley Black, ‘the devil designed.’ The war is raging in Europe, and back home hundreds and thousands of people are dying daily from the deadly Spanish flu that’s sweeping the nation. Death lurks around every corner and knocks on every door, so it’s no surprise that people feel drawn to the dark side of life, with séances and spirit photography the order of the day. Mary Shelley, though, has no time for this sort of thing. A physician’s daughter, Mary stays true to her mother’s memory by putting her faith in science, rather than spirits.
However, when her father is arrested for treason, Mary goes to stay with her battleship-building Aunt Eva, and enters a different world; a world of hysteria and paranoia where spirit photography is revered. Mary is dismissive of her aunt’s beliefs, until one day, overwhelmed by yet more bad news she rushes outside in a storm and is struck by lightening. On wakening, there’s something different about Mary, and it soon emerges just how touched by death she has been when the spirit of her killed-in-battle sweetheart Stephen starts paying her visits late at night. Mary wants nothing more than for Stephen’s soul to be at rest, and for that, she needs to dig deep to find answers about the blackbirds that haunt Stephen and make her feel like she’s losing her mind.
Combining a richly drawn historical setting, with a haunting mystery, sweet, sweet love story and heart-wrenching loss, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is a wonderfully imagined and meticulously researched tale that is a real reading treat despite its myriad dark themes. In Mary Shelley Black, Cat Winters has created a heroine is who as intelligent and kind-hearted as she is spirited and adventurous. Mary Shelley reminded me in many ways of Evie O’ Neill, the heroine of Libba Bray’s The Diviners, and, I think too that anyone who enjoy Bray’s book will also have a pretty enjoyable time reading this one, and vice versa. Just like Evie, Mary Shelley is a wonderfully drawn character. Honest, loyal and full of integrity, Mary stands up for what she believes no matter what, and she believes Stephen when he tells her there is more to his death than first meets the eye.
The time and setting of In the Shadow of Blackbirds also really appealed to my love of history, while the vintage photographs which appear throughout the book add a haunting sense of reality to a story where death is ever-present and where people must be ever-vigilant in fighting off the threat of the deadly Spanish flu – onion syrup, anyone? Of course, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is not all about dealing with the harsh realities of daily life in 1918, there’s also the spirit world to contend with. I have to say, I have a particular love of books that deal with the spiritualist craze; I’m a big fan of Mary Hooper’s Velvet, and I urge you to check that one out if you’ve read and enjoyed this book. Here, although Mary Shelley is still a skeptic even after her encounters with Stephen’s spirit, she attends séances and spirit photography sessions in order to get closer to the truth, and what she discovers is very, very interesting indeed.
Gothic and haunting with a mystery that kept me guessing and a love story that tugged on my heart-strings, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is an accomplished debut novel that makes for a wonderful Halloween read. Cat Winters has found a fan in me, and I’m already looking forward to her next novel, The Cure for Dreaming, which releases next year.