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. -Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads
There is a lot going on in this book (a flu outbreak, WWI, spiritualism, photography, true love), and it covers a lot of ground genre-wise (historical, mystery, romance, horror, a hint of Steampunk, meditations on war abroad and at home). Thankfully, Winters blends these elements into a pretty cohesive whole, and as in Libba Bray's excellent The Diviners, the historical setting and disparate but complementary elements come together to tell a compelling and atmospheric story.
I griped about the portrayal of a headstrong and scientifically minded heroine in The Madman's Daughter (another period piece) because that character felt forced to me. Here we have Mary Shelley, who, despite having similar inclinations in a setting not too far in the future, seems believable. For one thing, her family clearly helped to foster her talents and interests (her mother was a physician and her father named her after the author of Frankenstein- obviously written by a talented woman with an interest in science). Sure some people look at her askance when she takes apart machines to figure out how they tick, but there is no tedious "a WOMAN doing science? Heaven forfend!" hand-wringing to drag the reader down. Oops, tangent. Anyway.....
I went into this book not quite knowing what to expect, other than being excited about the spirit photography elements, which I think was a good thing. I won't go into much more detail here, other than to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this read and would recommend it to fans of dark historical fiction and stories that will keep you guessing.