Monday, July 08, 2013

Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

 In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Cat Winters
Genre: YA Historical Thriller
Publication date: April 2nd 2013
by Amulet Books

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.
-A copy was provided by Amulet Books for review-

It excites me so when I come across a novel that shows me there can still be books that thoroughly stand out from any other in its originality and outstanding story-telling. I can not even believe that In the Shadow of Blackbirds is Cat's debut novel!

What I love most from this book is how, through impressive research, Cat achieves an exceptionally poignant historical atmosphere from a time that saw through so much death and horror. The fall of 1918 had not only the highest death toll from the Spanish Flu which killed over 50 million people (some sources even say up to 100 million), but it was also in the throes of the first World War. Having been fascinated by an epidemic flu that, even to this day, is seen as unusual without a known origin, I have fell upon surprisingly few books on the matter, so I was instantly drawn to this novel. And I'm highly impressed with the level of realism and drive it endorsed in showing us exactly what people were going through in those god-awful days. From frantic - but in a way necessary - beliefs in thrifty home remedies; to face masks that hides you from the world - and you to it; to the number of bodies being picked up like garbage every evening. We're brought into a time that was, in the best of descriptions, gray.

Not only do we see the horrors of this invisible killer, we're also in the midst of Word War I. This, too, is full of unbelievable sadness. Cat is not afraid to show us the real ugly truths. Through the eyes of Mary Shelley - an innocent 16 year old girl - we experience the longing that comes from having a loved one at war, and we see the grim consequences of this war during her visits to the recovering veterans' ward when we meet soldiers who have been irreversibly damaged; not just physically, but mentally. And that is what In the Shadow of Blackbirds is really about: the fragility of the mind. Even while reading, you're forever questioning what is real, and what isn't.

Throughout, Mary becomes such a compelling character that I found myself easily lost in the ways she's seeing this bitter world. She despises the masks that she sees as the face of an unflinching villain. She digresses, at least to herself, from the new "patriotic" ways, believing what her father was saying about doing what is right instead of what's safe. She finds bravery when she has nothing else. Furthermore, I loved the side characters who, no matter how small the role, had great impact in the story, insuring their memorability.

When Mary Shelley's sweetheart starts haunting her, this turns an already bleak story into one that is positively eerie. There could not have been a better atmosphere set for a plot such as this. Along with hair-raising scenes that range from cryptic to horrific, the book includes several grim photographs that make its eeriness even moreso. Plus, when you think about the real surge of spirit photography from a desperate time with desperate mourners, the book doesn't stray very far from reality. Cat simply takes history and turns beliefs into actuality.

Cat Winters was immediately added on my "auto-buy" list upon finishing the last page. Her talent is proven undeniable in this unique, well-researched, and evocative novel that is In the Shadow of Blackbirds.

Also, isn't it odd that I was reading this book while sick with the flu? *looks around warily*

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