Full disclosure: I received a free eARC of this book from Net Galley, which has not affected my opinion of this book.
Since reading Of Noble Family, the final book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s series The Glamourist Histories and one of my faves of 2015, I have been keeping a close eye on Kowal’s work. I read Word Puppets and Forest of Memory, and have been waiting impatiently for Ghost Talkers ever since it was announced. I even marked the release date on my calendar (partly this was because the date kept changing).
Ghost Talkers is the story of Ginger Stuyvesant serving in the Spirit Corps in World War I. Even if you aren’t into war stories (which I’m not), stick with me; I trusted Kowal and you should too. Ginger’s Spirit Corps comes from the spiritualist movement in Europe and the Americas in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. (I know you must have read some Agatha Christie. She was into writing about seances and spirit mediums.) The Spirit Corps have trained the British troops to, upon death, return to the mediums’ specific location and provide any information about their , German army position, etc. Basically, they are to report anything that they might have seen as they were dying that could be useful to the British Army. The conflict comes in when Ginger and the Intelligence officers realize the Germans are trying to disrupt the Spirit Corps, learn their secrets, and then destroy them. Oh, yeah, and a ghost arrives saying that he was murdered, so Ginger has to solve that too. (Well, he was murdered more specifically than the general way it happens in war.)
The concept of this story (spirit mediums as part of the World Wars) is one that seems to obvious to me. Many people of the era believed in spirit mediums, so of course they would have been put to work in the army if they had been really able to speak with the dead. The ideas about the souls and spirits are well-developed. When Ginger pushes her soul outside of her skin, she can see the colors of souls floating above characters, which gives us and her a chance to infer how the behavior and feeling go together. Kowal totally uses this to her advantage. I often struggle to visualize when books have spirit realms or mind magic, but this was clear and the colors were easy to visualize. I also really enjoyed the way the ghosts behaved and the way the murdered ghost started to fall apart.
Further, the troops and information the soldiers provide is well-thought out, and the realities of the war are there. But, for a book set in a bloody war, there isn’t too much blood and gore (and I am saying this as a wimp). There is a lot of poetry, which made me want to go get out my college copy of Wilfred Owen poems.
Kowal’s writing is wonderful, but I think the thing I love the most about her writing is how aware she is of social rules and conditioning, that affects how we think and interact with the world. Not only does Kowal seem to understand this, she seems to have researched this as well, and builds her characters world with an eye to the historical conditioning. She is thoughtful, aware of many different layers of social interaction and bias that her characters enact on each other and must work within (i.e. gender and racial biases). Kowal makes her main characters women who both fit (more or less) within their historical society, yet are rebels of their time. This gives modern readers an in with the character who might otherwise be distant and hard to relate to. I found Ginger to be engaging and I was rooting for her through the book.
I did guess the murderer early on in the book, though I think it was more because of my familiarity with mystery stories and the way these things tend to play out. That said, I changed my mind part way through the book, so was then surprised when my initial guess was right during the reveal. And previous fans of Kowal will enjoy the historically appropriate cameo by a famous writer, similar to the sly-wink cameos of The Glamourist Histories.
I saw Kowal mention that Ghost Talkers may have sequels depending on the response to this book. Well, my response is a loud affirmative on this book (and more of these books, please!).