Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Genre: Historical fiction, paranormal Age Level: YA Series: N/A
Genre: Historical fiction, paranormal
Age Level: YA
Series: N/A

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.


I’d heard nothing but good things about this book and was not the slightest bit disappointed. I loved the paranormal twist on a historical fiction as it was a interesting approach to an interesting topic.

I feel like I say this about every historical fiction I read but I really learned a lot from this book. Not that its a bad thing, its why I enjoy this genre, but it makes me wonder about what they teach us in school. I know a fair amount about WWI, and knew about the Spanish Flu but never about the two together and certainly not about the rising spiritualism. Soldiers were dying in the war and civilians were dropping dead from the flu leaving family members desperate to get in contact with their loved ones in whatever means possible.

I guess the scariest thing about this book is that things aren’t any different today. Soldiers still return home damaged from the war both physically and mentally. It was in this war that ‘shell shock’ was given its name, and soldiers that had it were laughed at and disgraced. Though we may be better at treating physical ailments, I’m not sure that we’re any closer to dealing with the psychological trauma. Look in the news and you’ll hear about the recent increase in suicide and PTSD among veterans. Here and here.

Second, a virus like the flu could pop up at any time and I don’t think we’d handle it any differently today. People avoided physical contact, wore masks, used buckets of onion, camphor pouches and stayed away from public areas – and the flu still spread. Upwards of 20 million people died worldwide, some with in hours of contacting the disease. If you’re interested, you can find more information here. You could do everything humanly possible to prevent the disease and it would still catch up with you.

I loved the strong female characters and the note of feminism in the novel. Women began taking on jobs that men usually had because they were fighting overseas. Women were also needed as nurses, both to take care of returning soldiers and flu patients. I loved Mary Shelley’s scientific mind and brutal logic and Eva’s strength and faith. They were wonderful characters to read about and are easy to relate to.

The male characters were extremely interesting  as well. In Mary’s flashbacks Stephen is smart and full of life which makes it hard to accept his death for both her and us. Julius is pegged as the bad guy straight off though its not clear how evil he is until the end. The minor characters are also fleshed out and interesting.

The plot is very engaging and the novel is an easy read, though the content matter is rather disturbing. There is a massive twist towards the end that I was close to getting, but was still a bit of a shock. Some parts are a little unrealistic, but as they were not the focus of the story, I didn’t mind all that much. The paranormal part was pulled off brilliantly and its not so hard to believe in spirits while reading. Some parts gave me chills and I was thoroughly engrossed in the novel.

It is a fantastic debut that treats a tough topic with a ton of sensitivity and insight. The photographs that accompany the book are a crucial part of the story as they are a constant reminder that it all actually happened. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? What did you think? I’d love to hear from you!


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