Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review: In The Shadow Of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Something I've always been interested in, and which I read shockingly little about in fiction, is history. I've had a great interest in not only what happened in the past, but how people truly *lived* it--what it was really like--since I was in my teens. While browsing a Fresh Batch post I came across another novel, A Death-Struck Year, which grabbed my interest. And as I did my research about reading *that*, I discovered this book.

I wasn't sure what I would think of In The Shadow Of Blackbirds going in. I didn't have any real expectations, outside of being interested in examining the Spiritualism craze, the paranoia and fear during the Spanish Influenza, and the effects of WW1. On all three of these accounts, the book made great use of clearly well done research and took strands of history an ocean apart and yet intricately related, weaving them into a tapestry of a novel that I could not put down.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me try to explain things a little better...
(Summary from GoodReads)
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.
First up, I will say this: going into a book without a clear and defined expectation--a detailed and specific "promise" that I expect the author to fulfill--was both terrifying and refreshing. As a reader of fantasy and romance (mostly) my expectations are usually very straight forward: I want a happy ending for whatever couple I'm shipping, and I want the bad guys to get stomped. In The Shadow Of Blackbirds, being something outside of my normal reading scope, did not present such a clear and definitive expectation. I ended up deciding, and then needing to re-evaluate, what I wanted from and for the characters, and that is part of what I think made it so brilliant and refreshing.

I genuinely enjoyed Mary Shelley as a heroine. Something I have noticed in fiction is that we often tell the reader that a character is smart, yet we generally fail to actually carry through on showing their intellect in action. Much of the time we seem to prize bravery and / or physical strength instead, or we give a character intellect as a side note to these things. Mary Shelley is a fairly average sixteen year old girl who happens to be very bright and curious. It is her keen mind that makes Mary stand out, and it is that mind which she uses to solve the majority of what is thrown at her in this novel. She does develop and grow as the story progresses, but that growth always stems from things which were true to her character from the beginning.

On top of this, I feel that the side characters all play into Mary's central strength well. I felt that their reactions to her wits and eccentricities were believable for the time period and that in combining the two, Cat Winters made good use of opportunities for character growth, conflict, and an enrichment of the time period she was writing about. ("Brains" were not on the list of qualities that a 1918 gentlemen sought in a potential wife. Let's leave it at that.)

I wasn't sure how I would feel about having a paranormal element enter this story. Between seeing the effects of the Spanish Flu, the damage done to young men sent home by the war, and the effects of patriotism--and paranoia--on peoples' lives, the book was already pretty scary just using what was real. However, I do think that the way the paranormal aspect of the book was handled, and how it lead to an intriguing mystery which required Mary to delve into the parts of the story I had come to read about, was clever and well thought out.

The last thing that I must speak about is how powerful the combination of things happening in this time period were in creating a setting and set of circumstances which I actually found more terrifying than I found the paranormal aspect. There are things you will learn in this book which are not for the faint of heart. It's not violently graphic or gruesome, but it also does not shy away from the realities of the world these characters were living in. If your imagination is anything like mine, the reality of what's going on will still be effective. I had the "pleasure" of reading this during the wee small hours of the morning. I'm not totally sure I'd do it that way if I were reading the book for the first time again. I'll admit it: I'm a wuss and I had trouble getting to sleep!
A satisfying and believable ending acts as the cherry on top of a story which hooked me from start to finish. I read the enter book in one day and not once did I want to put it down. If you haven't read In The Shadow Of Blackbirds yet, I would highly recommend that you check it out.


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