By Mary Robinette Kowal
Published 16th August 2016 (Tor Books)
My father was a soldier, and war documentaries and war movies have always been something we’ve bonded over. I wouldn’t call myself a war buff, but I am quite partial to stories set during the world wars. Despite this background, I have never come across a story quite like Ghost Talkers. The description got me excited as soon as I read it; what if we lived in a world where Spiritualism was real? You know, the ghost and medium and séance stuff that was popular at the time of WWI. Why, the military would use it of course. Ghosts reporting to mediums from the front lines? What a great way to gain intelligence about the enemy’s movements.
So, Ghost Talkers has a unique, interesting idea that hooked me to the story right away. But we know that it takes more than a good idea to make a good novel. I am pleased to report that Ghost Talkers follows through, introducing us to wonderful characters, giving us a perspective of WWI that we don’t often see, and taking us on a thrilling, impossible-to-put-down plot.
The story follows Ginger Stuyvecant, an American medium working for the British Spirit Corps, who spends her days meeting the recent causalities of war and taking their final reports. She is engaged to Ben Harford, a British Intelligence Officer. Between them, they discover that a traitor is feeding the Germans information about the Spirit Corps, and that the mediums are in danger. There are few people they can trust, forcing Ginger to go to the front to uncover the truth.
We end up with a novel that is part spy thriller, part romance, and part fantasy. And all the parts work. The workings of the spirit corps are believable, and presented as somewhat scientific. The relationship between Ben and Ginger felt real, and beautiful. The characterisation in general was on point. I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of the supporting characters, but most got moments to shine, and some I grew quite attached to.
The depiction of war was not as brutal as I’m used to, but I feel it had the right amount of blood and gore for this story. Ghost Talkers is also interesting in that it shows the Great War from a woman’s perspective. For the past 100 years, we have celebrated the bravery of the men on the frontlines. Rightfully so; life in the trenchers was horrific. The constant shelling was enough to drive people crazy, and the courage needed to go over the top into the face of machine gun fire is unimaginable. What we often forget about are the women who were right in the thick of the war as nurses, ambulance drivers, doctors and motorcycle dispatch riders. A lot of the mediums (who are mostly women) experience a form of shell shock from having to relieve the deaths of hundreds of soldiers. In an afterward to the book, Kowal mentions that a lot of what the mediums suffer through was based off the experiences of female ambulance drivers, who were right there in the battlefield and often experienced PTSD.
Ginger’s point of view also allows us to explore the institutional sexism and racism present in turn of the century British culture. It was mostly explored well, though I feel at times I was being slammed over the head with the message. I do feel that Ginger might have been a little bit too 21st Century in expressing her views, which, I know is a strange critisism to make after what I said about the depiction of women in Bastion Station, but it didn’t really gel with the 1916 setting. However, I do like that she is a character with strong convictions who is not afraid to voice them.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the romance part of this story. I don’t really want to say much about it, for potential spoiler reasons, but if you are put off by the idea of a romance story, rest assured; everything is all good.
I’ve been disappointed before by picking up books with awesome ideas, that then turn out to not have enough story to support the idea. This is not one of those cases. Ghost Talkers is a wonderful ghost-spy-mystery-war-romance story, that I have no qualms recommending to anyone. Even if you think ghost or romance or war might not be your thing.