In The Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Release Date: April 2, 2013
Pages: 400, Hardcover

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?


There is so much I want to say about In the Shadow of Blackbirds because there is so much that deserves to be recognized. To keep my thoughts coherent I thought I’d break it up into sections.

The History -
I want to begin with a few facts to emphasize what a perilous time in history 1918 was.

Per, "According to reports, the 1918 Spanish Influenza affected 500 million worldwide and killed around 50 to hundred million of its victims which amounted to about 1-3% of total world population. It was considered as one among the deadliest of natural disasters or pandemics in the history of mankind."

Happening at the same time was World War 1. Per the ever trustworthy Wikipedia, "The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history."

It’s safe to say that death was everywhere. This really set the stage for In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I imagine everyone felt some kind of loss. The threat of losing one’s own life was very real and sudden. Panic was high and hope was little, which drove people to act desperately and perhaps without reason.

The Setting -
Cat Winters does a wonderful job of portraying the fear and confusion felt by the people of this time. She captures the hardships and loss of war with stories of personal loss, women in the workforce, Red Cross clinics, war propaganda and more. The endless presence of sirens, the buildup of flu victims, orphaned children, and home flu remedies, are just a few of the reminders of the constant threat of sickness. The mood of 1918 is already bleak and scary but then you have to factor in the surge in spiritualism. The demand for spirit photos and séance’s only added to the hopeless, desperate and spooky feel of the story. And the historical pictures throughout this book were a great touch. It’s no wonder I didn’t have a peaceful night sleep while I was reading this book. But I loved it!

"Another siren screamed by. That old bully Death breathed down my neck and nipped at my skin, warning, Don't waste one spare second of time. If there are things you want to accomplish while you're still alive, you'd better do them soon. I'm coming."

And credit needs to be given to Cat Winters for bringing this story to life with her amazing writing and imagery. It was fantastic. It’s probably not the best example but I included an excerpt so you can experience the eerie tone of this book.

Excerpt -
"I removed my mask and splashed cool water over my sweating cheeks and nose. The peaked face staring back at me in the mirror above the sink belonged to a petrified kid, not a confident spirit medium. My skin lacked all color, and my hair seemed darker than usual. I already looked like a black-and-white photograph.
I dried my face on a limp yellow towel that reeked of dark-room chemicals. The noxious air inside the house kept me from inhaling deep enough to calm my racing heart. With my throat dry, I twisted the doorknob and walked across the hallway in my double-reinforced Boy Scout boots that could still help me run at a moment's notice.
I approached the bottom of the staircase, my pulse beating in the side of my neck. I could feel Stephen there, sitting the same way as when I saw him back in April. My left food slipped on a polished floorboard, but I righted myself, regained my balance, and inched further. The bottom step of the staircase came into view, along wit ha foot in a gray sock. The buzzing of electricity grew so loud my eardrums felt they would burst.
I stepped around the corner and saw him.
Black-red blood still covered his entire face and shirt, so close and clear and grotesque in the daylight. I shut my eyes and gagged."

The Story -
Disturbing but well-constructed setting aside, the main story focuses on the young Mary Shelley Black who has recently moved in with her aunt in San Diego after her father was arrested for "un-American like behavior". Soon after she arrives she learns that the love of her life, whom had earlier gone off to war, has died. But at his funeral she hears him speaking to her and then later he appears by her bedside. From his incoherent ramblings she can tell that he is tormented by these black birds and unable to let go. To help him find peace, Mary Shelley vows to discover the details surrounding his death and help him make sense of it. The more she starts to dig, the less sense she can make of what she knows and what she's been told. And his visits grow more powerful and threatening at time passes, some even possess Mary Shelley in mind and body. Between Stephen's ghostly presence and the flu pandemic, Mary Shelley is fighting agains the clock and death's seemingly inevitable embrace.

"The ate us when we died. They hovered on the edges of the trenches and stared down at us, watching us, waiting for us to get shot or bombed.
You've got to keep them from getting at your eyes,
Stephen had told me when he spoke from the shadows of my bed. They'll take your beautiful eyes."

The ghostly mystery fit perfectly into the time period and enhanced nightmarish feel of the story. I enjoyed it immensely, as well as the many and unexpected plot twists. Everything in this book just complimented each other - the mystery, the setting, the discovery, the characters - the story was beautifully built and wrapped back around to the beginning. 

The Characters -
Like everything else in this book, the characters just worked. They were mysterious and interesting and each adding their own piece to the story. 

Mary Shelley's most distinguishable characteristic was her strength of will. 

"'I just buried a boy who meant the world to me, ma'am. I've seen corpses as blue as ripe huckleberries lying in front yards out there. There's no need to protect me from anything.' I shifted my sagging bad to my other hand. 'I'm tired of sitting around doing nothing.'"

Her personality was serious but expected under the circumstances and her stubborn and reasonable approach to things was well suited for the story. I also found her relationship with Stephen to be sweet - at least the glimpses of it we get to see in his letters and Mary Shelley's memories. Just a few more examples of the touches Cat Winters added to make this book something special.

Conclusion -
In the Shadow of Blackbirds was a beautiful and haunting story capturing the desperation, fear, and uncertainty of a devastating time in history. I seriously loved everything about this book. Cat Winters is incredibly talented and I highly recommend her book to readers. Especially if you are looking for an original, interesting, spooky, intricate, wonderfully written story. 



  1. The cover of this book scared me when I first saw it. But I've been getting more and more curious about it - especially after seeing reviews like yours. I hope I get a chance to read it eventually, as it does sound like something I'd really enjoy, particularly with the historical facts and setting used.

    1. It was definitely a little haunting. The cover fits the book well. I really hope you get to read it and love it! I found it amazing (as if that wasn't obvious) :D

  2. I don't usually read historical fiction books, but this one in particular sounds like something I will enjoy!!
    The setting used sounds fascinating. I've always wanted to read a book about the apocalypse itself while it's accruing.
    Great review! You have totally convinced me to read this book (:

    Sapir @ Diary of a Wimpy Teen Girl

    1. I hope you love it! The setting was one of my all time favorites!

  3. I skimmed over your review, because this book is sitting on my desk and needs to be read by me as soon as humanly possible! I seriously can't wait and I'm happy to see that you loved it so much and that the historical side of things looks like it's legit! I would say that this is a great review, but I didn't read it in detail, but I'm sure it is anyways!

    1. I expect you to read it soon then :D And I hope you love it as much as I did!!


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