I had very, very!, high expectations for this book and Claire Legrand (curse her!) met them all, surpassed them, and left me crying brokenly in the dust.
Because I am somewhat less than bright, there was a moment when I started reading and completely ignored the characters' names and was struck by the horrifying fear that Olivia was Victoria and Lawrence's child (from The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls) - so I'm going to take a moment here to be thankful that this wasn't something that occurred to Legrand (if she ever reads this review she'll probably go, "Oh no, a missed opportunity to crush my readers' souls!"), though she managed to break my heart every other page, blithely indifferent to my naïve expectations when I picked up what was supposedly a children's book.
I tried my best to be granted an ARC of this book, alas I had to wait what felt like eleven years for the Book Depository to deliver my hardback copy, all the while considering scenarios in which I managed to get the ARC after all, like disguising myself as Harold Bloom and marching into Simon & Schuster requesting a copy of the book (a difficult feat considering I'm neither male, nor white, nor old enough - and most importantly - not Harold Bloom). It may be of interest to some to learn that candles, contacting the spirit world and sacrificing a drawing of a black rooster (I couldn't kill the real thing) didn't work either.
But moving on - unlike The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, The Year of Shadows is told in first person. This was a bit jarring at first, but it was a stroke of brilliance: proper Victoria would insist upon having her tale told in third person narrative mode, and Olivia's tale wouldn't have hit the reader quite as hard if it hadn't been told in first person.
How hard, you ask?
When the story starts, Olivia, her frail grandmother, and her broken father are homeless and moving into Emerson Hall, the symphony hall into which her maestro father keeps sinking the family's meagre economies. Olivia's mother, Cara, left the family without a word nine months before.
So Olivia is, as you can imagine, a very distrusting and hurt little girl.
There's the shame of her mother leaving, now compounded by the shame of having people find out she's living backstage - and by people, I mean mostly Henry - perfect, straight As, popular Henry, who hushers at the Hall and constantly grates on Olivia's nerves.
But there are odd things happening at the Hall, sudden drafts of cold air which freeze Olivia right to her bones, slithering shades with pointy nails and teeth burning spots of glittering dark coldness into Olivia and Henry - and it's up to them to find out what is happening!
More than the ghost story, the real strength of this book is, as it was in The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, the relationship between the two main protagonists. I wish some YA, UF, HR, and PNR authors would take a look at how Claire Legrand writes relationships and realise how you can write a completely believable and compelling relationship and still keep it healthy. Yes, they're still kids, but there is no creepy imbalance in their relationship, and go ahead call me crazy, but Claire Legrand writes perfect little one-day-maybe OTPs.
But more than the romantic aspect of it, the friendship at its core is brilliantly written - not just with Henry, Joan a very socially minded young lady who is precocious (and obnoxious, according to their teachers), and stands by Olivia's side even when Olivia would rather she'd go and stand somewhere else, is also amazing in every way. And best of all? Igor, the cat!! He's not exactly a talking cat, but he still makes his thoughts known (as cats are wont to do).
The ghosts' stories were... how can I explain this properly? One time I tried to pick up my 66 lbs dog, he panicked and kicked me right in the chest - left me lying on the ground, crying and trying to catch my breath, choking on my sobs. Cracked 3 of my ribs. Reading the ghosts' stories, particularly Tillie and Jax's, and Mr. Worthington's, felt kind of like that, except more painful.
Also worth mentioning are Karl Kwasny's lovely illustrations, just look: