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In the Shadow of Blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds - Cat Winters It took me a long time to pick up In the Shadow of Blackbirds, despite its positive buzz. Two things made me leery. For one, I found its blurb to be unhelpfully vague. Even the interior cover flap was useless — just six, cryptic sentences in 20 point type. Hate those. Only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows can get away with that my-reputation-precedes-me stuff. Reason two, the information that was given sounded unbearably depressing. What was the marketing department for Amulet thinking? "Verge of apocalypse… deadly Spanish influenza… a brutal war… fear and confusion… desperate mourners… her bleakest moment… a boy who died in battle…" Ugh! Who would get excited over that blurb? The only target audience that comes to mind are people who enjoy getting shots. So, I would not have picked up this book but for my library’s excellent, new YA librarian, who saw me looking it over, got very excited, and insisted that I read it. I’m so glad I bit the bullet, because In the Shadow of Blackbirds has a lot going for it.

The story takes place in San Diego, in the autumn of 1918. Cat Winters writes, in her author’s note, that 1918 intrigued her because it was such a dismal year in human history, and the combination of WWI and a global pandemic caused people to go bonkers en masse. In the middle of all that crazy, Winters plants our protagonist, Mary Shelley — that’s a compound first name, like Mary Jane or Ana Lucia. Mary Shelley is stone cold sane, with a scientific, methodical mind, and the mixture of her character with the frenetic, sky-is-falling setting is really fantastic.

Mary Shelley reminded me of April Ludgate. A little cranky and deadpan, and often rude.

Our story starts when Mary Shelley moves from Portland to San Diego to live her aunt, after her father is arrested for assisting draft dodgers. Mary Shelley takes after her departed mother, who was one of the trailblazing women who practiced medicine at the turn of the century. At this time period, being an outspoken, hyper-intelligent female was akin to having a physical disfigurement, so Mary Shelley has only ever had one friend — Stephen Embers, a photographer’s son.

Mary Shelley and Stephen were best friends as children in Portland, but Stephen moved to San Diego when they were still young, so for years their only contact has been through correspondence. Sensitive, artistic Stephen shocks everyone when he enlists, but luckily, before he’s shipped to Europe, Mary Shelley finagles an in-person visit. Naturally, passion erupts between the grown-up soul mates, and Mary Shelley asks if there’s any way Stephen can withdraw his enlistment. But Stephen is desperate to leave the ocean-side mansion where he lives with his reserved mother and moody half-brother, Julius.

Julius and Stephen loathe each other, and one of the main issues between them is Julius’s re-purposing of Stephen’s father’s photography business. Julius has turned the studio into a spirit photography venture, which Stephen insists is fraudulent and immorally preys upon the grief-stricken.

Mary Shelley scoffs at Julius’s business as well, but the tide turns when Stephen is killed in France, and his terrified, disoriented spirit attaches itself to her.

What follows is a coming-of-age tale, a romance, a ghost story, and a murder mystery in a historic setting. Once it gets of the ground, the plot is well paced. From scene to scene, Mary Shelley moves back and forth to different locations and characters,in a manner reminiscent of the board game Clue, trying to unpack the mystery behind Stephen’s torment.

My only complaint with the book is that I would be hesitant to recommend it to older readers. Despite being well written, the book’s language is straight-forward and spartan; the enjoyment of the story comes from its content and not from any beauty of the language itself. This makes the story well-suited for younger readers, but limits its appeal for wider audiences who aren’t normally drawn to Children’s and YA books, even in their adulthood (as I am). Even the print design speaks to immaturity, with wide, childish line-spacing.

Despite these reservations, In the Shadow of Blackbirds was an absorbing, and surprisingly steamy, read, with finely-drawn characters, a forceful heroine, and a truly jaw-dropping, delightfully horrifying conclusion. 4.5 stars.