Friday, October 21, 2016

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

Reviewed by Jeanne

World War I, the “Great War,” is raging.  Desperate for an edge, the Allies have resorted to an unusual form of intelligence gathering:  the dead.  American heiress Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums employed to take down the last reports from those who have died at the front.  It’s a heart-breaking, emotionally draining task, but the information on the German troops is vital.  Ginger’s fiancé, Captain Benjamin Harford, is an intelligence officer with the British army and one of the few who knows about the work of the Spirit Corps.  He’s concerned for Ginger’s safety since the Corps’ secret headquarters is on the Continent, but soon he has another worry: somehow the Germans have learned of this unorthodox method of intelligence gathering and may be targeting the Spirit Corps.  Is there a spy in the camp?

Kowal writes both science fiction and fantasy, and is a Hugo Award-winning author, facts which I was ignorant of before picking up this book.  I like a bit of fantasy, but I’m picky about what I read in that genre and wasn’t sure that this would be a book that would hold my interest, despite many favorable reviews.  It didn’t take long for me to know that this one was a winner; by the end of the second chapter I was definitely hooked.  For one thing, Kowal makes the working of the Spirit Corps very matter-of-fact.  There’s no time spent in convincing the reader that it works or exactly how it works, though part of the latter question is dealt with in bits and pieces later on in the book.  That’s one of my pet peeves with many fantasy or supernatural books:  spending a lot of time convincing the reader that, say, spirit communication is possible.  If I pick up a book which says it’s about a medium who speaks to ghosts, the author shouldn’t spend several chapters trying to convince me it’s possible.  I’ve already bought into the concept by picking up the book based on the jacket copy or (yes, I admit it!) the cover.  

Ginger is a strong heroine, determined and courageous.  She’s also more than a bit headstrong in the grand tradition of American heiresses in the UK.  (Think Cora of “Downton Abbey” or Jenny Churchill.) Characterizations in general are well done, and Kowal touches on some social restrictions of the day with the introduction of a black medium and some Sikh guards.  The bulk of the story is taken up with the search for the spy, who is also a murderer.  Unfortunately, he attacked his victims in such a way that they did not get a good look at his face, so the ghostly reports are of little help.  

Overall, this is a delightful genre-bender of a book that blends mystery, supernatural, romance, and history.  The pace is excellent, moving the story steadily, and for me there were several surprises in store.  I appreciated how the author gave us a fully realized alternate world.  The supernatural felt as real as the trenches. Also, I have no idea whether or not this is the first in a series.  The door is open, but it does well as a standalone novel.  I’d certainly be interested in reading another, but if this is the only one, I’m equally satisfied with it as is.  

I believe this is a book with very broad appeal, and I will be recommending it to a number of people. 

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