Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal leaves behind the British Regency period in Ghost Talkers (2016), setting this paranormal tale during World War I. The British have learned that spiritualism is real, and they are using a circle of mediums to interact with the spirits of recently killed British soldiers, who seek out the mediums to provide whatever information they can from the scene of their deaths. Ginger Stuyvesant is an American medium, engaged to a British intelligence officer, and the main character of this action-packed paranormal spy drama.
This is a fascinating idea and Kowal develops it thoroughly. Realistically, most soldiers who died in a trench aren’t going to have useful intel to bring back; Kowal, a consummate professional, addresses that for us in the very first scene, where a soldier who died gives Ginger the location of a gun emplacement. Theoretically, at least, there is enough valuable information to justify magically forcing the spirit of every dead soldier to report in before it crosses over; and requiring mediums to take in all this information, which is sifted through later for useful bits.
Soon Ginger discovers that the Germans suspect what the British are up to, and there is at least one spy in the British camp — a highly placed one. Ginger’s fiancé Ben has been sent on assignment, and the British brass is notorious for belittling and ignoring the women who are serving. Even the spiritual circle, called the “Spirit Corps,” is disguised as a hospitality-club operation, and it seems like the commanding officer really does think that’s their primary function sometimes. Ginger is told that she is being hysterical and misconstruing the information provided by a British officer who was murdered, not at the front, but at the Spirit Corps headquarters. Ginger and the other mediums realize that their project, the war effort and Ben are all in danger, and, with no one else to turn to, Ginger heads to the front.
Ginger is her own woman, strong-willed, smart and flirtatious, with a core of seriousness and deep love for Ben. She is insulated from some of the insults and slights the others feel by her nationality and money (she is American and an heiress) but she observes first-hand how her colleague Helen, who is a woman of color, is treated. Ben is a rather flat character, sort of a standard Love Interest — he’s upper class, well-bred, comfortable on the dinner party circuit. He has a savage temper and he’s wildly in love with Ginger, and those are his most distinct qualities. The secondary characters, though, absolutely shine; Helen, Mrs. Richardson and especially Ben’s batman Merrow are nuanced and engaging, as is Sergeant Patel, and Sergeant Patel is a very important part of this story.
The spy-chase story is exciting and suspenseful and Kowal doesn’t shy away from the terror of trench warfare. She also doesn’t shy away from how women in the armed forces were treated by their own side. Ghost Talkers has chase scenes, suspense scenes, codes and puzzles… and lots of ghosts!
Kowal also shines a light on the role Indian soldiers played in World War I, in Europe. In addition to serving and dying in Turkey against the Ottoman Empire, Indian soldiers were a large part of the European war effort, a fact that has been largely ignored by the history books and dramatic depictions of the first world war. Kowal brings that information back to us through the actions of Patel and his men.
Ghost Talkers is not all about history and sociology. It’s action-packed, twisty and scary, filled with startles, suspense and humor. Ginger is a convincing hero, and so are the mediums who support her, as Kowal plays her characters against type. Mrs. Richardson knits, and for a while it seems like that’s about all she does, until she discovers she has a talent for spycraft. Ginger pushes herself beyond her boundaries, and Helen, the most ignored and belittled of the mediums, is a strong leader.
Ghost Talkers is an immersive experience, and education and a captivating read. Kowal delivers a solid paranormal spy drama that stayed with me after I closed the covers.
I definitely want to read this now. Thanks, Marion!
Ditto here! I’m crossing my fingers that it shows up soon in my local library. :)