Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds - Cat Winters

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
Genre: YA, historical fiction, mystery, supernatural
Published on April 2, 2013
Published by Amulet Books
Pages: 387
Read From: 5.16.13 - 5.17.13

In 1918, the world seems on the verge of an 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 seances 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?


Cover Blurb: Yes or No? Despite the fact that it has a leering character impersonator on the front, I do in fact like the cover. It is rather spooky and intriguing at the same time. I definitely judged this book by its cover, and the cover didn't lie.

Characters: Mary Shelley Black is a quick-witted and take-charge protagonist. She knows what needs to be done and she's not afraid to do it. She loves mechanical things, and her logic operates on just such a level, making her very practical and not so willing to believe things that seem impossible. And yet, she's also not in a constant state of denial. She realizes that her eyes can only lie to her so much, and so she trusts her gut as much as her head when it really matters. She's a believable strong female of 1918 without having an Attitude totally unfitting of the era - or an attitude at all. She's blunt and direct without being intentionally rude. Though Stephen, Mary's sweetheart, isn't really in the story much as anything more than a ghost, I did like him. He seemed a good and kind young man, who really loved Mary for who she was. Stephen's brother, Julius, was an absolute jerk and con artist - I loved hating him. And while Aunt Eva had every right to be in hysterics, it got a little tiring after a while.

The Romance: Stephen and Mary have known each other since they were children, and where the book picks up, they have already moved into romantic feelings for one another. Since the story picks up with their romance as an already on-going relationship, it doesn't feel rushed. And since Stephen isn't in the story all that much, the kissing scenes are blessedly few - and even those few aren't all that bad, considering some that I've read. Mary mentions Stephen's scent and (bleh) taste a few times, but the taste thingy isn't quite as nasty, since she can feel people's emotions, which come across as a flavor rather than a feeling or thought.

Plot: In the midst of World War One, the Spanish flu is rampaging across America - and the rest of the world, - killing thousands. When Mary's father is arrested for helping young men avoid the draft, she goes to California to live with her Aunt Eva, hoping to escape the worst of the Spanish flu. What she can't escape is her aunt's obsession with spiritualism and her lifelong crush on Julius Embers - a spiritualist photographer and the older brother of Mary's sweetheart, Stephen. Mary doesn't believe in ghosts, and she must certainly doesn't believe that Julius is legitimate. But when Mary learns that Stephen has died in France, and her father might be sentenced to twenty years in prison for treason, she'd had enough and stupidly flies a kite in a thunderstorm, deliberately trying to attract lightning. She doesn't fail. But what Mary doesn't count on is due to this near-death experience, she's become something of a magnet to restless spirits. More specifically, the restless spirit of Stephen, who appears to her nightly, babbling about blackbirds that are torturing and killing him. Desperate to see his spirit at rest, Mary begins to investigate Stephen's death, but she has no idea where her investigations are going to lead her. Quite honestly, I didn't know what In the Shadow of Blackbirds was really about when I first picked it up. The coverflap's synopsis is vague at best, and I didn't read any reviews or more detailed summaries beforehand. It was a faith-read: the cover was interesting enough and it took place in 1918. That was enough for me! So when Mary gets struck by lightning and quite literally dies for a few minutes, I was baffled. Was the protagonist going to be a ghost for the rest of the narration? How was that going to work? Well, obviously Mary doesn't stay a ghost for a whole thing, but the story's strangeness didn't lessen; it got worse. As Stephen's ghost continued to visit Mary and talk on and on about blackbirds, red skies, and many other things that made no sense on their own, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was in for one weird read. My mind was jumping from one bizarre theory to another: the Germans were using genetically engineered animals on the battlefront (which would have just been an idiotic plot), Stephen was taken as a prisoner and given strong hallucinogenic drugs as a form of torture (boring), the blackbirds were a metaphor for something else (lame). I honestly didn't know how it would turn out, but I knew it wouldn't make any sense. One thing is for sure: the guessing kept me intrigued. In the Shadow of Blackbirds was most certainly not boring, and I couldn't wait to see what would happen next.

Believability: The Author presented the events and the world of 1918 spiffingly and accurately. I have no complaints in this area.

Writing Style: First person, past tense. While I wouldn't call the writing poetry, it fit the era, and the Author conveyed the horrors of the Spanish flu and World War One very effectively without too many gross details. She didn't zoom in on the vomit and blood and shattered bones, but mentioned them in a general manner that somehow heightened the horror of it.

Content: 3 g--damns, 1 s-word. Mary and Stephen don't actually have sex - they keep their pants on, - but they do everything else (pg. 274-275). This scene is more sensual than actually explicit, though.

Conclusion: I really can't say a whole lot about it without giving tons away. Let me say this: it wasn't at all what I was expecting. Oh sure, at one point in the story, I immediately knew what was going on, and I was a little baffled that Mary hadn't totally figured it all out herself. But what I wasn't expecting was how normal the twist ended up being. It wasn't lame, it wasn't boring, but it wasn't weird, either. Not weird at all. And somehow it made it all the more horrifying and creepy and even a little disturbing. And it left me feeling completely shocked. I had been anticipating this hugely bizarre, inexplicable, "huh?" ending during the entirety of the book, and I was very pleasantly presented with the exact opposite. After I got over my initial shock, I knew that I liked it - loved it, n fact. All of those nigglies were tied up and there were several further surprises that I wasn't expecting. The climax wasn't dragged out, yet still suspenseful, and while the end is somewhat bittersweet, it was the only sort of ending it could have had. Stephen is dead, after all, and there is no bringing him back, so it's going to be a bit sad. All in all, In the Shadow of Blackbirds was one of the best supernatural mysteries I have ever read. It was startling, it was set in a great era, the Author's writing conveyed the horrors of the Great War and the influenza pandemic, and it had terrific characters. It's a book I could read over and over again, because I know that with each re-read I'll grow to love it more and more and more.

Recommended Audience: Girl-and-guy read, sixteen-and-up, great for Readers of supernatural historical fiction with an awesome mystery, intelligent protagonist, and an ending that goes in a direction you weren't expecting.

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