Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters


Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds

Author: Cat Winters

Rating: 4.5 Stars

"The road ahead may be rather upsetting for a sixteen-year-old girl. I'm afraid your delicate female eyes and ears will experience some ugliness." 
"Oh, you silly, naive men." I shook my weary head and genuinely pitied their ignorance. "You've clearly never been a sixteen-year-old girl in the fall of 1918."

And thank god for that. In the Shadows of Blackbirds is historical fiction at its best - so richly atmospheric and full of true accounts that it leaves you chilled to the bone. It is often difficult to imagine that our world could be as scary or frightening as an alien planet, but it was, it is, and it will continue to be. World War I especially, though, was a frightful time. Granted, there was no threat of nuclear warfare, but trench warfare was just as deadly and the image of poison gas, giant rats, and infection still plagues my mind when I think back to that time period in history. Now, undoubtedly, the image of white masked faces and black feet, carts carrying the dead as if it were the Bubonic Plague, will haunt me too.

Cat Winters picks a time period of deep loss, fatigue, and fear to place her debut novel in, but it works perfectly. Although the aura is one of fear, for people are hiding away not just from officers determined to arrest any and all who seem pro-German, but they are hiding away from Death himself. Mary Shelley Black, the headstrong protagonist of our tale, has arrived in San Diego to live with her recently widowed aunt. Since her mother died during child birth and her father has been deemed a traitor, Mary is alone in the world but for her aunt and childhood sweetheart, Stephan, who is now fighting in the war. In San Diego, though, the people are slowly going mad, both from fear of the plague - eating nothing but onions and clutching their gauze masks to their faces - but also from the hope of seeing their deceased ones in spirit images. Julian, the older step-brother of Stephan, specializes in such images and Mary, ever a girl of practical knowledge and scientific learning, is skeptical of his claims. When Mary begins to see the spirit of Stephan, her first love, though, she turns her eye to the spiritual - and to the question of why Stephan can't find peace in the afterlife.

"Why can't a girl be smart without it being explained away as a rare supernatural phenomenon?"

From the first page itself, Mary Shelley Black is the type of protagonist I love. Not only is she fiercely independent and practical, but as the daughter of a female physician, she is intensely curious in how things work. Mary is, quite simply put, the beginning of women engineers in our world. While she remains skeptical of Julian, though, she never relinquishes her strength in helping her aunt and maintains her courage during this time of death. Furthermore, and perhaps best of all, Mary is smart enough to realize that seeing the ghost of her first love is not a ticket to happily-ever-after like so many other young adult protagonists seem to think. No, the ending of this story is bittersweet and set in an era of so much death, there really are only a few ways this book can turn out.

"Everyone wants to categorize the world as good or bad, right or wrong. There is nothing 'in between' in their eyes."

In the Shadow of Blackbirds is not a happy novel, but it is beautifully written, managing to transport the reader into a time long-forgotten. Winters uses striking images, buried before and after certain chapters, to drive home the unforgettable era she paints. Not only that, but Cat Winters weaves beautiful love stories within these pages, whether it be the tales of familial love and strength that emerge or the sweet tales of first love. Both these dual - and prominent - relationships that Mary holds with her aunt and Stephan are richly developed and believable. Mary and her Aunt Eva, in particular, become close companions and though they are both very different women, they come to represent the strength of their sex in different ways. With Stephan, the unshakable foundation of their relationship is evident in past letters and ghostly encounters, both terrifying and soothing at the same time. For me, the strength of Winters's skill is shown most evidently in these scenes, both full of real-life horrors while simultaneously displaying an emotion of calm and palpable love.

"Just remember human beings have always managed to find the greatest strength within themselves during the darkest hours."

In nearly every way, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is perfect. Within its pages awaits a seemingly forgotten era - another Lost Generation of souls deceased from infection - along with a remarkable heroine and a blood-curling mystery. And yet, Winters doesn't stop there. In the Shadow of Blackbirds contains some of the most poignant one-liners I've come across, bursting with truth and dripping with wisdom. Furthermore, Winters takes care to explore the shifted dynamic that has emerged among women during this time of war. One of Winters's greatest assets as a writer is her ability to subtly weave in many aspects of this time period, from socially acceptable customs to gender roles to intimate details about warfare, but nothing is over-done. Every subject she touches upon manages to be delved with the perfect balance so that the reader is felt completely satisfied, even on the subject of spiritualism. If Winters did lose me anywhere, it was only that there were one-too-many near-death - or death - experiences to completely sell me, but as this is a novel of fiction that is perfect in every other way, I can easily forgive this. In the Shadow of Blackbirds is, undoubtedly, one of my favorite reads of the year. It is a novel I will return to, certainly, as for me, any book that is a time machine is worth holding on to.

19 comments:

  1. When I saw your review was for this book I got a little afraid because I wanted you to like it SO badly! So what a relief that you did! I actually have gotten to know Cat Winters pretty well through several different dinners we've had together and a few nights ago we went out and spoke a bit about sequels. I think a companion novel or something would be fantastic. I just find myself wanting more. I think she's writing a different HF right now though. But fingers crossed! So glad you loved this!

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  2. I've heard nothing but amazing this about this one. Even though I'm not such a great fan of historical fiction this one is on my to-read list. I love the quotes in your review. Amazing review Keertana :)

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  3. Keertana, I love, love, love your reviews. Reading this brought me back to reading the actual book and how much I truly enjoyed it. It was an almost perfect book for me (I had a few slight character issues), and you helped me to remember why it was so unique, macabre, and enjoyable. Well done. And I'm glad you loved it!

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  4. Oh gosh. I would never have given this book a second glance before reading your review, but now I absolutely MUST have it. When you tell me that an historical fiction novel rings true with atmospheric and palpable settings and events, you'd better believe that's exactly what I look for. Plus, it seems so well-written! Fabulous, fabulous review, Keertana!

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  5. Ooooo perfect? That's quite the endorsement from you Keertana! I haven't read a less-than 4 star review for this book yet, so I really need to make time for it. I feel like I say that all the time, but I have a feeling I'll really regret not making time for this one. Beautiful review as always!

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  6. I've heard so much praise for this story. The time period is fascinating, sad, and frightening. Can you imagine if the ratios of the infected and dead happened today? It would be mass hysteria! I don't think I'll be picking this up just because I know this is not a happy book, as you said. Brilliant review, Keertana. :)

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  7. I agree with you that this is such a perfect book in every way! Mary Shelley jumped right out of those pages, and she won me over in a heartbeat. Plus, Winters' writing is beyond gorgeous, full of those small sentences that open your eyes in so many ways.
    I was hoping you'd love this and I'm glad you did in the end.
    Lovely review as usual!

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  8. I don't read Historical Fiction too often and when I do it's usually only for a books that sound really interesting to me and this is one of them! This was a brilliant review that has me pushing this book up my TBR pile. I'm really glad you enjoyed it!

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  9. She really did weave together the different historical elements beautifully, and the writing is just lovely. I was surprised by how much I ended up liking the romance as well, and it's definitely topping the list for unconventional ones!

    I didn't find this to be quite as perfect as you (and many, many, many others) did, but I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what this author comes up with next. Astonishingly good debut.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

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  10. First of all, I absolutely adore the format you chose in writing this review, Keertana! Those are all powerful quotes for sure. ha I do agree about the many near-death experiences though. That's where I got lost too. But, really, everything else about the book really is that amazing that I was able to look past those few little bumps in the road. I'm glad you were able to enjoy this one as well!

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  11. I wasn't the biggest fan of this book but I can definitely see why so many people love it! It really is a beautifully written (& designed!) book. Glad you liked it so much.

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  12. This is such a beautiful review, K! You certainly make me want to pick it up, where I was skeptical before. I love a well written historical fiction, especially one depicting such a volatile and frightening time in American history. I also love the history of photography, and looking at old pictures, so knowing that they are scattered throughout the book is definitely a point in this novel's favor. Knowing that the MC is strong and relatable, is also attractive. I guess my main hesitation was in the 'ghost' story part of this book, adding a speculative aspect to a historical novel - I honestly had no idea what to expect from that cover, except something creepy. But it sounds like the author pulled off that part well.

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  13. I am so excited to read this! It is waiting for me on my bookshelf and I plan to read it next. So I am relieved and happy to hear that you loved it. After reading your review, I am 99.9% positive that this will be a new favorite book. It sounds amazing and I'm especially loving your description of the protagonist! Is it weird that I'm excited to read a book that deals with such a dark, depressing subject? Oh well. Great review, Keertana! :D

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  14. Btw, I love how you divided the review by quotes! Such a neat idea!

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  15. I'm so intrigued by the reviews for this book (yours is stunning, as usual!) It seems so unusual, not like anything I've seen in YA recently. I really love historical fiction and this sounds like it has an extra edge that really works. I must get to this soon!

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  16. Oh man. After this review, I NEED THIS BOOK NOW. I wasn't planning on reading it since it didn't sound like my kind of book. I love historical fiction but I wasn't drawn to this one. I'm glad you loved this one as much as you did! I especially like the sound of Mary since the synopsis doesn't quite tell me how awesome she is.

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  17. Based on the review, I now want to read this book. It sounds great!

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