Book Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
RELEASE DATE. April 2, 2013
PUBLISHER. Amulet Books
PAGES. 400
FORMAT. ARC
AGE GROUP. Young Adult
GENRE/S. Historical Fiction, Paranormal, Romance
FIND IT. Amazon | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS. 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.

THOUGHTS. Despite having a great fascination for history, I admit that historical fiction is rarely my comfort zone. I rarely do an exploration of this genre and rarely do I become fascinated by a historical setting. In fact, it is only when a fantasy element is incorporated into a historical fiction that I get lured into its pages. Oddly, or should I say, surprisingly, with an indefinable appeal, something drew me to In the Shadow of Blackbirds. It could be the intriguing title. It could be the arresting cover. It could be the fusion of a paranormal element. Or, it could be the eerie presence radiated by this novel. But one thing I am sure about is how clever Cat Winters is for putting in such a static-producing literary work that I really could not describe with all the good words combined. I rarely say this but I am hands-down for Cat Winters. Just totally hands-down.

From World War I to the Spanish Influenza; from the shell-shocked men in the trenches to the desperate mourners in the séances, Winters has this flair for writing historical fiction. She deftly executed the livid ambiance and the eerie time setting of In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I almost felt like I was in there when all of it happened. Like, I could feel the sadness and fear of every family as they sent their fathers, sons, and brothers to war. Like, I could smell the stinking smell of onions that filled every house in America. Like, I was one of those direly queuing outside the spiritualist photographer’s studio. There was no single evidence of lapses or changes in the history. Everything was accurately laid and authentically told as if Winters had a firsthand account of those times. The researches she had done really manifested even alone with the dark atmospheric setting of In the Shadow of Blackbirds.

As difficultly affecting as it maybe, I managed to fully immerse myself in this disturbing historical novel even with the haunting archival photographs containing of real people in gauze masks, real dead bodies in body bags, and real ghosts in family portraits, scattered throughout the pages of In The Shadow of Blackbirds. But what actually heightened the affecting and disturbing setting more are two greater elements: the great set of genuine characters, and, the charismatic and undying love story of two characters.

Apparently, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is more of a character-driven story. I do believe that each of the characters Winters penned could be portraying the real life stories of real life people who had lived during those times of trauma and turmoil because of how she adeptly delivered realism and vitality into the story. With that realism and vitality, it was easy to fall in love with each of the characters, both protagonists and antagonists, and understand each of their personalities and thus, it was easy to get lost into the story regardless of the time and setting. In other words, Winter’s ability to construct characters is very natural and her characterizations perfectly traverse along with the powerful dystopic setting of the book.

Along with the character-driven story, another driving force of the novel is, of course, the love story. Winters delivered an extremely compelling and intensely tangible love story in In the Shadow of Blackbirds. Even from the beginning, despite of how Mary Shelley and Stephen’s love story torn by the war, even through letters, flashbacks, and apparitions, their love story is indeed magnetic. Heedless of the demand for physical affection, the powerful presence of love is ever-present throughout the pages, let alone of the unexpected dramatic climax and ending that both rendered me emotional even after I turned the last pages. Both unrequited and fervor, it is a breathtaking love story that could be an equivalent to the Shakespearean classic, Romeo and Juliet, only with more rationality and more swooning.

With a well-researched time and setting, a familiar paranormal element, a confounding denouement, a set of authentic characters, and a poignant love story, in a tout ensemble, Cat Winters’s first novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds will undoubtedly capture the hearts of many and haunt them in a good way. Even if there'll be the demand for a sequel, a film, a Broadway play, the story of Mary Shelley will live on, thanks to the phenomenal mind of Cat Winters.

Rest assured that this won’t be my last Cat Winters book.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Cat Winters’s critically acclaimed debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, a 2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee, and a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Her upcoming books include THE CURE FOR DREAMING (Amulet Books | Oct. 2014) and THE UNINVITED (William Morrow | 2015), and she’s a contributor to the 2015 YA horror anthology SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS.

Cat lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids.

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