Book Review: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone/Book 1
Publisher: Tor Books (August 16, 2016)
Length: 304 pages
Ghost meets World War I in this really cool new paranormal alternate history novel by Mary Robinette Kowal. The book stars Ginger Stuyvesant, an American engaged to a British intelligence officer during a period of intense fighting in Europe. Our protagonist herself is a medium stationed in the French port city of Le Havre working for the Spirit Corps, a classified spiritualist project developed by Britain to gain an advantage over the Germans.
In the British army, each soldier goes through a top secret conditioning process to ensure that upon their deaths, their spirits will return to Le Havre so that the mediums there can take their report. It’s their final service to their country, passing on potential valuable intelligence like enemy troop movements and tactics. As a member of the Corps, Ginger’s job is to talk to the ghosts of these slain soldiers, collect their information, and pass it on through to the right people. If the Germans find out about what they’re doing here, the consequences can be devastating. However, Ginger’s fiancé Captain Benjamin Harford, being one of the key figures involved in the running of the Spirit Corps, is already suspicious that their secret may be out due to some recent strange activity. Ginger is soon made aware of a possible traitor in their midst, and while Ben is away at the front, the two of them exchange coded messages to share what they know. Together they work to uncover a spy and put a stop to the German’s attempts to target the Spirit Corps.
There’s also a major plot development that happens near the beginning of the book, and although the publisher description doesn’t mention it, it’s so obvious it’s coming that I’m not even sure it would constitute as a spoiler. Still, I’ll err on the side of caution and won’t reveal it, even if it will make writing the rest of this review more difficult. Without going into specific details, I think it is enough to say that this particular development will lead to some very poignant and emotional moments. Ginger felt very genuine to me, which of course is crucial to my enjoyment of a main character and her story.
I also enjoyed the ideas here. Often, when a book calls to me, there is a specific “hook” to the description that initially catches my attention. For Ghost Talkers, it was unquestionably the concept of a Spirits Corps of mediums working for the army. The idea that the military would find a strategic use for ghosts and isn’t really beyond the pale, and Kowal does a great job developing the ins-and-outs behind what Ginger and her fellow mediums do.
However, while world-building is fantastic on a micro-level, when it comes to relating it all back to the wider world out there and the history of the times, that’s where the seams of this novel start to show. When it comes to historical fantasy and alternate history fiction, atmosphere is always going to be more important than the details for me, and the main issue I had with the world-building here was that even though I knew I was reading a book set during WWI, the story never truly made me feel like I was there. I really liked how Kowal addresses many social issues at the time, such as the systemic sexism and racism, but while I applaud her intentions, in the process of tying her story together she also rushes through convenient resolutions which glosses over the harshness of the reality. It’s also not very clear how the Corps came to be, and the workings behind the huge network of people involved in maintaining its secrecy. For example, the story mentions a couple of famous figures like Harry Houdini or Arthur Conan Doyle who are actually accomplices for the British government, working on their behalf to cover up spiritualism and ghost-talking by actively debunking things like that in public. Without more context on the history of the Spirit Corps and how such a huge endeavor was pulled together though, all this comes across as mere name dropping and a slapdash way to try and connect readers to the historical era.
The story was also entirely too predictable, playing out like a conventional mystery—especially since it wasn’t subtle at all when it came to dropping false leads, so it was just a matter of the process of elimination to identify the traitor.
Still, the characters and their relationships shine, even if the plot and setting are weaker. And truly, I think the ultimate strength behind Ghost Talkers lies in its ideas about the Spirit Corps. Imagine having to interact with the departed souls of thousands of soldiers, many of whom died violently and unexpectedly. All ghosts and mediums know that they have a job to do, but reading about Ginger’s attempts to provide comfort and assurances to the spirits before they dissipate into the great unknown was both tragic and touching.
So if the book’s description catches your interest, I think that’s reason enough to check this one out. I wish the story had been expanded a little to create a more immersive atmosphere or to include some context and background information about the Corps, but perhaps that can be addressed with future books. This was a fast, enjoyable novel, and I’m glad I read it.