Sunday, March 17, 2013

In the Shadow of Blackbirds (review)

4/5 stars

In the Shadows of Blackbirds (Goodreads | Amazon) was a surprisingly wonderful book.  It's a small slice of history, one of my favorite things in books, with some paranormal elements and a great main character.  This book made me a little nervous (anything paranormal does that to me because so many are poorly done), but it did almost everything right.

The main character in the book was exactly my type of girl, strong-willed, intelligent and practical. Mary Shelley Black, named after the famous author of Frankenstein, carries her mother's doctor bag, wears Boy Scout books and doesn't take shit from anyone.
"Well there you have it," She held up her hand as if she had just solved the deepest mysteries of the universe. "You read too many books that encourage the loss of innocence."
"I lost my innocences on April sixth, 1917. And it had nothing to do with Gray's Anatomy." ..."The day this country declared war against Germany," I reminded her. "The day spying on neighbors became patriotic and boys turned into rifle targets. That's enough to take the sweetness out of a girl."  

It is 1918, the height of the Spanish influenza pandemic that swept the world (death estimates range from 20 million to 100 million) and the world's gone to hell in a handbasket.  Mary Shelley's father is in jail for treason, her sweetheart Stephen is away at war and she's living with her Aunt Eva who's so terrified of the flu she barely let's Mary Shelley leave the house.

With all the death surrounding 1918, it's not a surprise that Spiritualism was a popular movement.  Missing loved ones, people wanted answers about the afterlife and seances and spirit photography became widespread.  When there's a tragedy scam artists will always rise to the occasion. A good portion of this novel is devoted to Mary trying look at spiritualist phenomenon scientifically, both scams and her own experience.

When Stephen dies in battle, appearing in a spiritualist photograph taken by his brother Julius, and a telegram about her father's imprisonment arrives on the same day, Mary Shelley gets angry at the world.  In a fit of rage she decides to fly a kite in a lightning storm, a rash suicide attempt, because the world is so unjust. She gets struck by lightning, temporarily dies then everything changes.

You might be thinking "Hell no, not another paranormal ghost love story. Kill me now."  Hold that thought.  This is not a paranormal love story.  When Stephen starts appearing to Mary Shelley, of course she feels all the reminates of first love. But Mary Shelley is a smart and practical girl. So what does she do?  Not cling to something that's impossible.  Mary Shelley sets out to solve the mystery surrounding Stephen's death so he can finally rest.

The mystery is nice and twisty.  To say I was fooled once (or twice or three times, I stopped counting) is an understatement.  This book kept me guessing, growing in creepiness all the way until the end.  Oddly the realism more than that paranormal elements is what makes this story scary.  It doesn't depend on cheap thrills and bumps on the night, between the flu, the war and the circumstances surrounding Stephen's death ghosts aren't the scariest thing haunting Mary Shelley.  With a main character than shines, interesting history and a nice little mystery, this book proves its worth until the very last page.

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