Usually when you find a war novel, it’s about World War 2, and when you find a book about World War 2 it doesn’t have supernatural goings-on. Well, there are more zombie Nazi’s than you can shake a stick at, but you know what I mean…
Ghost Talkers, published by Tor Teen written by Mary Robinette Kowal, whose last big series was Glamourist Histories about glamour magic in the Regency era. So moving on to mediums in WW1 is not such a big jump for her.
Of the two World Wars, WW2 seems to get the most press because it cemented the world order as it is today including the US’s foreign policy, diminishment of Europe’s global power through colonialization and the formation of the UN. On top of that you have the Nazi’s functioning as the ultimate villain. Not only are they this regimented, theatrical, Hugo Boss wearing army but they are simultaneously engaged in a massive war and working to exterminate millions of people. It’s storytelling gold, making a dramatic movie, or book, or comic etc..
But WW1 gets overlooked a lot of the time because, for one thing, it happened at the beginning of the last century and for another it gets billed as the prequel to WW2. But what a lot of people don’t think about is how much WW1 changed warfare. Armies went through massive changes in fighting style, philosophy, and weaponry. It was the time period where soldiers went from looking like a Napoleonic maypole to something that we recognise as a soldier today.
And most importantly, WW1 changed the outlook on war. Before the Great War it was far easier to present battle as glorious, honourable, and masculine. But the meat grinder that was the first World War created a very cynical people who understand the horrors of modern warfare.
I guess my point is I’m glad to find a story set in WW1.
The heroine of Ghost Talkers is Ginger, an American heiress working for the British army. On the surface she works for hospitality services, taking care of soldiers when they’re on leave, but really she helps run the Spirit Corps.
The Spirit Corps is a group of mediums who have conditioned soldiers who have died on the front to appear before them so that they can take their reports of what was happening around them when they died. This way the British Army can get rapid notice of any military offensives that are causing massive casualties or even pass on information they catch from the German’s as they’re dying. The tactical advantage that the ghost soldiers’ give them is invaluable.
But the Germans have caught on the fact that dead soldiers are reporting in. They are desperate to replicate the process for themselves but they have been unable to figure out how the British have conditioned the soldiers to report in. Worse, there is a leak somewhere in the British forces, one that Ginger must stop before the Germans get a hold of the secret to conditioning.
Ginger is a plucky heroine. As a medium she can read people’s auras and remove her soul from her body in order to see and communicate with the dead. She can also experience a ghost’s memories as her own, meaning she’s experience hundreds of deaths soldiers on the front. Ginger is highly involved with the running of the Spirit Corps and deals a lot with the army even though she is technically not a soldier. She’s like a Peggy Carter psychopomp.
Ginger’s biggest concern, other than the Spirit Corps, is her fiancé Ben, who is a spy for the British. She worries about him constantly. He’s a sweet guy, capable and good at his job, and light hearted. He also worries about Ginger a lot, and can see auras too.
Other characters that shine are Merrow, Ben’s karate black belt assistant and Mrs. Richardson, a knitting granny who chaperones Ginger when she needs to go on missions to the front.
While Ben was the one originally investigating the British leak eventually he’s unable to continue and Ginger has to pick up where he left off, taking her to the front and turning her into an amateur spy.
Kowal does a decent job getting across how awful the war is for troops without going into too much detail. She gives some time to the trauma of constantly being shelled, trench foot, living in trenches, battle wounds, and PTSD – all the big classic parts of a soldier’s reality in WW1. But there were so many uniquely awful situations in WW1 that if Kowal had gone into more depth with them the atmosphere would have been less generic and lot more memorable. But I would rather her underuse the horrors of war angle than overuse it.
Kowal also doesn’t forget to factor in class, gender, and race. They play a big part of how people interact with each other and do a great job of cementing her book in the 1910’s time period.
But best of all, the supernatural element of mediums and ghosts feels natural. Conferring with the dead can sometimes be dangerous. If a medium is exhausted or not anchored properly their soul might get sucked from their body. Kowal sets up realistic rules for her mediums and these rules help make the scenario seem plausible.
And having the army use ghosts to check-in and deliver information is a genius idea. The army integrate the Spirit Corps into the army as a subset of an inconspicuous civilian women’s organisation. It not only masks the movements of the mediums but also gives a legit excuse to be there. I would believe it. It sounds like something right out of a WW1 spy handbook.
In fact, you’re so keyed into the having the German’s lose the war from all the American war films you’ve seen before that you instinctively route for the characters.
Ghost Talkers is an unusual premise but well written and entertaining. I loved how well it was put together and clever it is. You never feel like the supernatural elements were thrown in just for camp factor. I could honestly believe that mediums working with the British army was a thing. Most of the book is focus on Ginger trying to find the leak and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. The story moves at a steady pace. There is never a point where you’re bored or don’t care about the stakes.
And even better, if this book is well received there will probably be a sequel says the author on Goodreads, so pick up this book and tell your friends if you want more. As for us, this book is everything we wanted since we first heard about it, so definitely check it out.