Book Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

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.

5 cupcakes

“Human beings have always managed to find the greatest strength within themselves during the darkest hours.”

In the Shadow of Blackbirds is a hauntingly atmospheric novel set in the midst of World War I. Between the grief that comes from the loss of a loved one and the injured soldiers who show exactly how high the consequences of war are, Cat Winters is unafraid to show readers exactly how much heartbreak and tragedy the people living during this time were forced to endure.

The Great War wasn’t the only cause of death and horror during this time, however; the Spanish Flu resulted in the largest death toll during the latter half of 1918. It’s evident that Winters meticulously researched this time period: there are coffins lining the street corners, and gauze masks and garlic/onion-flavoured dishes appear to be the only defense against this epidemic. Vivid descriptions allow the Spanish Flu to be ever-present, resulting in heightened paranoia and the feeling that this silent, unseen killer is a character in and of itself.

Our protagonist, Mary Shelley, is one of my new favourite heroines. She’s intelligent, rational, and possesses a scientific mind – which was seen as odd during that time, but served to make me love her even more. Mary Shelley is determined to do what’s right instead of what’s safe, yet is neither radical nor prone to impulsive risks. She’s compassionate and resilient, and I greatly admire her strength and courage during such bleak times.

The paranormal aspects are incredibly well-done, both in terms of the spiritualism craze and the haunting itself. In times of trouble, people often cling to whatever gives them hope — and, during World War I, that just so happened to be spiritualism. While Mary Shelley doesn’t believe in this phenomenon at first, strange and eerie happenings cause her (and the reader) to question just how much of it is real.

Overall, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is an exceptionally haunting and evocative debut. I can’t wait to read what Cat Winters writes next!

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