Historical Fantasy

Ghost Talkers (Tor Books, 8/2016) by Mary Robinette Kowal

From the jacket: “Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, and intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force. Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the corps can pass instant information about troop movements to military intelligence.

“Ginger and her fellow mediums contribute a great deal to the war effort, so long as they pass the information through appropriate channels. While Ben is away at the front, Ginger discovers evidence of a traitor. Without the presence of her fiancé to validate her findings, the top brass thinks she’s just imagining things. Even worse, it is clear that the Spirit Corps is now being directly targeted by the German war effort. Left to her own devices, Ginger has to find out how the Germans are targeting the Spirt Corps and stop them. It’s a difficult and dangerous task for a woman of that era, but both the spirit and the flesh are willing….”

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Ghost Talkers is a stand-alone historical fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal, standing at 305 pp. The story centers around medium Ginger and her role in World War I. While performing her duty as a medium of the “Spirt Corps” securing intel from the dead, she learns a traitor has infiltrated her camp at Le Havre. She has to solve the mystery of a traitor’s identity while working within the confines of women’s decorum in the early twentieth century and the ruse of the “Spirit Corps” providing hospitality like tea and conversation. The majority of the Corps are ordinary women (and some men), who “ground” the medium so that they don’t succumb to the pull of the spirt world while they interview the spirits. Each piece of information could save other servicemen.

Based on the chapters with dates, the majority of action occurs from July 16, 1916, to July 26, 1916, with the battle at the Somme.

Ginger relies on auras to ferret out the truth of characters she works with, trusting her medium circle but few others. I enjoyed the times she had to use skills, like code-breaking. Kowal had set that skill up because Ginger and her fiancé Ben exchange coded letters while he’s off gathering intelligence.

Stakes rise as Ginger dares to leave the mediums’ base of operations to chase a lead. From ruses and disguises to the risk she takes every time she leaves her body, nothing comes easily to Ginger. She, along with every other medium, risks the temptation of leaving their bodies behind for the attraction of the spirit realm. Another risk she accepts, besides being killed in action, is letting slip the secret of the Spirit Corps if she’s captured. When Ginger returns to her body after longer absences when she has let her spirit slip free of it, Kowal makes me feel the “ick” factor of a corporal body and its limitations. I never doubted that Ginger put herself at risk; and that the survival of the Spirit Corps, and the British forces, depended on Ginger identifying the traitor before that person learned how the Spirit Corps tethered the dead.

For a book this length, Kowal’s cast carried the story—Helen, Mrs. Robinson, Lieutenant Plumber, Ben, Merrow—I cared about them. Ginger typically travels with one or two characters, and she’s quick to enlist help of others once she’s away from Le Havre. Adding to the risk, however, are the times soldiers formerly stationed at her camp make their appearance at the front on Ginger’s heels. Like her, I don’t know who to trust until it’s too late. The action speeds up as she determines the identify of more than one traitor.

With my limited knowledge of Britain in the early twentieth century (I don’t read or watch many period pieces) Ginger’s limitations rang true, as did the treatment others received based on their nationality, such as Corporal Patel and his men.

Advancing the mysticism that underpins the story, Kowal incorporates “lucid dreaming” (where two people can share a dream and communicate), the medium communicating with the dead and even experiencing their death through their eyes, poltergeists (the dead wreaking havoc among the living), and more.

I selected this book after reading the release-day blurb from agent Jennifer Jackson because the story line hooked me. The book began with dialogue, continuing the promise of that blurb. The relationships among the characters (Ben and Ginger especially) plus the roadblocks kept my interest. I had to set aside my writer hat, however. Within the first four pages, multiple incidents during Ginger’s out-of-body medium work hit me as “tell” when I wanted “show” How are you aware of your body when you’ve slipped your spirit awareness out of it? How do you know you haven’t been breathing? Is that always a risk? Is it a risk because you’re tired now or because you’re so focused on the intel? As a reader, I should be asking questions—but it shouldn’t be about the rules of being a medium.

Because on the first page, I thought the risk was Ginger’s being pulled back to her body because she was tired. By page six, the risk seems that her spirit might never come back to her body—“already one girl had lost her grip on her body.”

I kept reading because within those first critical pages, Kowal had me vested in Ginger, her relationship with Ben, and the enormity of the Spirit Corps providing more intel within the horror of World War I. This is more of a mass market book, where story line carries more weight than the writing itself.

Learn more about Mary Robinette Kowal and her other works, such as those within her series “The Glamourist Histories,” at her webpage. At the time of this review (11/26/16), Ghost Talkers is available in hardcover and Kindle.