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.
As someone who loves a well-done historical novel, I was really looking forward to In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I haven’t read too many books set during World War I, although the one I’ve read most recently – A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot – was extremely well done and quite emotional, so I was hoping this book would be in that same vein. I’m happy to report that it definitely was. Not only does In the Shadow of Blackbirds take place during the war, but it also includes even more historical occurrences, from the 1918 flu pandemic to seances and spiritualism. The amount of research the author must have done to write this novel is astounding, and the fact she spent so much time making her book as realistic as possible really stands out in the writing and the reader’s enjoyment. This was a book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Mary Shelley Black is an amazing main character. I loved her wit, her love of science, and the fact that she wasn’t at all like other sixteen-year-old girls growing up in 1918. Mary Shelley has her own way of doing things and her own beliefs, which I found quite refreshing to read about. I loved how she started out skeptical about ghosts and spirits, only to have to re-think her position. She was very analytical about things, and I loved how she continued to do what she thought was right, even when she was told by her aunt or others to leave things alone and just worry about keeping herself safe.
The atmosphere of this book, however, was what really tipped this into five-star territory. The descriptions of the streets, from the people moving about with gauze masks on (which in the end did little to help anyone escape the flu), to the seances, to the mourners wanting their relatives to return to them, everything was just written about in a way that the reader could really see what was happening. While sometimes there can be too much description, with Blackbirds I really felt like those depictions were necessary to help set the mood and develop the suspenseful feel of the book. The air of mystery and confusion that reigns through much of the book as Mary Shelley tries to figure out what Stephen’s spirit wants from her really helped drive the plot and keep the reader engaged. I found this book to be pretty much unputdownable.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is easily the best debut I’ve read this year. The historical flourishes, the air of mystery, and the headstrong main character all combined to create a book I devoured and loved from start to finish. If you haven’t yet had a chance to read this amazing book, you definitely need to do so soon! You won’t be disappointed.
ARC provided via DAC ARC Tours in exchange for an honest review.