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Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
3.75
Book Name: Ghost Talkers
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Historical Fantasy / Mystery
Release Date: August 16, 2016

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal presents an alternate World War I where a soldier’s duty doesn’t end when the shell falls or the bullet finds a target. Spiritualism is real, and mediums have given the Allies the edge. Although death and betrayal are at the heart of this book, a cast of plucky, charming characters keeps the story from tipping too far into melancholy. Ghost Talkers is a fast-paced spy-mystery with plenty of surprises and laughs, all set in a richly developed world. If you are a fan of Hitchcock movies, or if you are looking for an introduction to Kowal’s writing, this standalone novel* would be a great place to start.

In this alternate 1916 France, when a British soldier dies, he has been trained to report in one last time to the Spirit Corps. This covert group of mediums, including our protagonist, American Ginger Stuyvesant, probes ghosts’ final memories for intelligence, such as German artillery placement or a sniper’s hiding spot before also collecting any final messages for loved ones—all in the moments before the ghosts pass over into the next world. As any useful intelligence can then be immediately relayed to the front, the Spirit Corps has given Britain a unique advantage in the war, one the Germans are willing to kill for. When Ginger’s fiancé, British Captain Benjamin Harford, warns her that the Germans are targeting the Spirit Corps, she travels to the front, using all of her powers to uncover the plot before it’s too late.

What I most enjoyed about this book was how well developed the workings of the Spirit Corps were. In the beginning of Ghost Talkers, readers are presented with the burdens of an overworked, understaffed group confronted to endless death, day in and day out. Readers quickly get a sense of the mechanics of this last report, as well as the limits and dangers. Yes, it’s magical, but it’s also a grind, like doing shifts in a field hospital or a factory. The Corps has been plugged almost seamlessly into the British war effort. This is a fantastic, fictional process, but Kowal has done a remarkable job making it seem real. Of course, nods to real-world spiritualists, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, don’t hurt either.

I also liked that Kowal has written a war story that focuses not so much on the typical sort of characters—the generals or the enlisted men on the front line—so much as it does on those not often seen: women both young and old, people of color, disabled veterans. In addition to Ginger, there is also the grandmother Mrs. Richardson (with a carpetbag Mary Poppins would envy) and Corporal Patel, a combat veteran forced to be a driver because he is Indian, among others.

On a related note, Kowal also doesn’t shy away from the sexism, classism, and racism that sit at the heart of the British war effort. Kowal places each of these –isms directly in Ginger’s path. You know, in addition to the spies and killers coming after her. But it was also amusing to watch Ginger take advantage of those cultural expectations to accomplish her mission.

If you like to solve mysteries before the protagonist, Ghost Talkers might not be the most challenging story. Regardless, I thought there were plenty of surprises and red herrings, so I still felt satisfied by the time I finished the book. Moreover, once Ginger begins working to solve this mystery, the story takes on a definite momentum, almost like a runner scrambling downhill, faster and faster, just on the verge of losing control. At the beginning of Ghost Talkers, Ginger is already exhausted, having worked a number of double shifts. As the story progresses, she is so focused on solving the mystery and protecting her Corps that she goes without food or rest. As if the front wasn’t dangerous enough, this exhaustion might lead to Ginger losing control of her powers and losing the connection between her soul and body. But Kowal balances this tension by also including plenty of wit and humor. It’s a fantastic combination that makes it hard to put Ghost Talkers down. And of course, I enjoyed Kowal’s signature Easter egg: a cameo appearance by a certain Time Lord.

Ghost Talkers shows off Kowal’s many talents: three-dimensional characters, brisk pacing punctuated by cinematic action sequences, and smart, colorful prose. It’s a potent recipe for a great summer read.

*As of now, Ghost Talkers is a standalone, but Kowal wrote on Goodreads that Tor might be open to a series if this book sells well. So if you like what you see here, go out and buy the book and encourage Tor to publish more.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)
Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal, 10.0 out of 10 based on 3 ratings
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One Comment

  1. I felt like the mystery was weak but maybe just because some of us are mystery nerds and we’re all like “spotted it!”? Meanwhile I agree with you — the world building is so brilliant.

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