Monday, April 22, 2013

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Release date: April 2, 2013
Author info: Website | Twitter | Facebook
Publisher: Amulet
Pages: 400
Format: Egalley
Source: Publisher provided through Netgalley
Buy the book: Barnes & Noble | Amazon | The Book Depository
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.
Beautiful but heartbreaking. If I had to describe In the Shadow of Blackbirds as succinctly as possible, that would be it. So different from pretty much everything out right now and so lovely, both in writing and its story. Cat Winters deftly explores humanity and just how far we will go to survive, even at the expense of others. It's a sad reality to face, but one that's important and not often explored in young adult literature. I don't think I can recommend this book enough.

It's 1918 and the United States is deep in the throes of World War I and the Spanish influenza. The American public is in a frenzy. If you're not dying overseas in the war, you're dying from the flu. With death's never-ending presence, people turn to  the supernatural to reach their loved ones. Mary Shelley Black, a self-proclaimed girl of science, doesn't believe in the otherworldly. But when she has a close call with death and her deceased first love begins visiting her with unsettling stories, Mary Shelley may just have to rethink her stance, and find out why his spirit is not at rest.

I just have to mention that this is definitely a book worth reading in print form. I had an egalley, but won a print copy before I began reading, so I read the physical book. I compared the two, and the digital version just can't hold a candle to the beauty of this book. There are so many details on the pages and the photographs that just look better in the book. I don't think reading a digital version ruins the story, but your experience is definitely enriched.

What works best in In the Shadow of Blackbirds is the stark description of the people's state at that time. Mary Shelley visits a Red Cross ward, where soldiers are healing after being injured in the war, and she sees men who've not only lost limbs, but they've lost their spirit. We can't help but wonder at the real cost of our liberty, and who pays that price. Each person, when they leave home, dons a flu mask to prevent germs from getting to them. They chew onion gum and put bags of moth balls around their necks. Fear makes people not human, in a way, and this is shown so well. This all adds to the feel of the book, but it works even better to make it pack a punch to the reader. Also, without this setting, Mary Shelley and Stephen's story would've lacked immediacy and felt like any other book.

This is not a feel good, happy kind of romantic book. Yes, Mary Shelley and Stephen have a beautiful, honest, sweet relationship, but if you're looking for a happy ending, don't look here. The dark world presented is not one that gave a lot of happy endings like we've come to expect. But, we can leave with hope, something even better. Even in the darkest and most trying of times, one can always see a ray of hope and take comfort in the wells of strength in characters like Mary Shelley Black.

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