First, a caveat. I’m a (lapsed) historian; for me, reading historical fantasies and alternate histories unavoidably sets of alarm bells in the positivist/materialist corners of my brain. That’s largely my problem, not the genre’s. Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, Ghost Talkers (Tor, August 2016), her first since wrapping up her five-volume Glamourist Histories, is, like that earlier series, a historical fantasy, and an engaging and readable one at that. But the fact that it’s a historical fantasy set during the Great War, which was one of my areas of focus during my studies, means that I brought more than the usual baggage to this book when I read it. My take on it is more complicated than the typical reader’s would be.
Ghost Talkers is powered by a clever premise. Spiritualism, the craze that swept the western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is real and has been put to use by the British Army on the front lines of the Great War. Their soldiers are conditioned so that when they die, their ghosts report in to teams of mediums, providing valuable intelligence from the front lines. (One imagines suicide missions for intelligence reasons becoming increasingly acceptable.) Ghost Talkers’ protagonist is Ginger Stuyvesant, an American medium working for the British Army’s Spirit Corps, a secret wing of the army’s intelligence services. Her work, and those of the other mediums, is overwhelming: the toll of the dead is relentless, and Ginger, like other mediums, runs the risk of having her soul separated from her body.
Evidence begins to appear that the Germans are aware of the Spirit Corps and are trying to sabotage their work — by blinding wounded soldiers to limit their intelligence-gathering abilities, by overwhelming the Corps with sheer numbers of casualties, and, we soon read, by other measures. After a British officer is murdered, Ginger suspects that a spy is at work. Then her fiancé, Capt. Benjamin Harford, is also murdered, and haunts her until the mystery of his death—and, relatedly, the threat to the Spirit Corps—is solved.
Ginger’s grief and loss is personal, individual; the cataclysm that went on to scar an entire continent fades into the background. It’s at this point that Ghost Talkers trades the sublimity of war literature for a perfectly entertaining story full of romance, suspense and adventure, conscious of gender and racial bias, with empowered and passionate characters who have great chemistry with one another—everything that fans of Kowal’s work have come to expect. But it’s also where my experience of the book became increasingly dissonant, and where I bounced off it a bit.
A reader approaches a book with certain expectations. As a historian of modern Europe I am well acquainted with the poetry, literature and visual art of the Great War, which had a transformative impact on European culture and society (for an introduction, read The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell). Because of my background, I found Ghost Talkers … tonally jarring, despite my best efforts. To be fair, if Ghost Talkers fails to scale the lofty heights of the war poets or delve deeply enough into the grief of life in the trenches, that is to a certain extent beside the point. This is a book of a different sort, with a different purpose—yes, written in the shadow of Graves, Remarque, Sassoon and so many others, which problematizes books that are about the War, set during the War but not necessarily of the War.
The problem I had with Ghost Talkers was not that it had insufficient gravitas; the book was, if anything, too heroic—too patriotic—where the literature and poetry of the War was decidedly neither. The real-world experience in the trenches was simply too ghastly for any ghost story. But, a century after the Somme, with all the remaining survivors now gone, the Great War may have finally shed its sacerdotal nature.
I received an electronic review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.