The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden fantasy book reviewsThe Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden fantasy book reviewsThe Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden

I was a big fan of Katherine Arden’s WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY and ended my review of that series by saying I was greatly looking forward to seeing what she did next. Well, what’s next is The Warm Hands of Ghosts (2024), a standalone historical novel set in the horrors of WWI that happily mostly maintains the high bar of quality Arden set with that earlier trilogy, though I had a few issues with some elements. Minor spoilers to follow, though I’d say all are heavily foreshadowed early on and thus aren’t really spoilery.

Arden’s narrative follows two plotlines, both set toward the end of WWI though slightly separated in time. In one, beginning in January 1918, former battlefront nurse Laura Iven has been living back home in Halifax, Novia Scotia after being discharged with a medal and a serious injury. Early on in the book, she receives a box containing some personal items of her brother Freddie, who was serving in Belgium and is now missing and presumed dead. For various reasons, though, Laura believes Freddie may still be alive, and even if that remains unlikely, she wants to learn more about what may have happened to him. She thus heads back to the front along with two other women: Mary Borden, who runs a private hospital behind the lines, and Penelope Shaw (“Pim”), whose son has also gone missing in Belgium.

The other timeline (begun some months before in November 1917) follows Freddie, who is not dead but had been buried below ground in an exploded German pillbox along with a wounded German named Winter. The two eventually make their way back above ground but get separated after a harrowing journey back to “civilization”. Freddie (who in name and poetic bent may be meant to echo Wilfred Owen, the young poet who died in the War) takes apparent refuge with a mysterious fiddler named Faland, who appears periodically to soldiers who can enter his surprisingly intact and posh hotel, with his strange violin music and a mirror said to show those who look into it their deepest desire.

As the novel moves forward, the two plots eventually converge as Laura seeks out Freddie on the warfront (encountering Faland as well), and Freddie sinks ever deeper into the isolating and life-draining “refuge” of Faland’s hotel. Whether Laura will find Freddie in time is the driving force of the novel, and it remains a tense question throughout.

That overriding tension is one of the many strengths of the book. Another is Arden’s grimly vivid and sometimes lyrical depiction of the WWI hellscape, whether describing the trenches, the blasted-out land, the ruins, the wounds, the infuriating dichotomy between the soldiers in the field and their leaders in the châteaus sending them out to die, and more. Calling it a “hellscape” is semi-literal here, as Arden uses the surreal nature of the war, as well as its otherworldly nature, to graft her more supernatural elements onto the story. Often called the first “modern” war, WWI marked a turning point from one world into another, though one that was less a step through a doorway from the old to the new and more a layering over, for a while, of the two together, one atop the other. It was, after all, a war where soldiers in plumed hats rode horses at the same time other soldiers crept forward inside tanks, where infantry with bayonets marched in close order against machine guns, where the skies were filled with airplanes dropping bombs and also passenger pigeons carrying communications. Add in the miles upon miles of trenches and barbed wire, the craters from artillery, and the green clouds of mustard gas and “surreal”/”hellish” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden

Pulling off one of my favorite elements of fantasy — making the metaphoric literal — Arden drops into this landscape (minor spoiler to follow) the one character who would (perhaps) feel at home. I call this a minor spoiler because I’d say it’s made pretty clear early on who Faland is meant to be, to the reader if not the characters. Even, I’d argue in a minor quibble, a little too clear too early, with his mismatched eyes lighting up “with unholy laughter,” his fiddle on which he plays “flawless music,” his “damned mirror,” and his name that, depending on one’s pronunciation, could be read as either “Foul Land” or “Fey Land.” Not to mention of course the chapter titles from Paradise Lost and The Book of Revelation. Beyond the unnecessarily (and unsuccessful) coyness regarding his true nature, Faland slots nicely into the same type of immortal creature we saw in the WINTERNIGHT trilogy with the Frost King Morozko. Not that the two are similar as characters but in the way Arden does such a great job, and sadly a relatively rare one, of presenting these immortal beings as truly different from you and I rather than as simply long-lived humans. Faland is not, nor should he be, “relatable,” nor is he truly understandable. Just as a fey being should be.

The scenes with Faland and Freddie are easily my favorite: for the surreal, fantastical nature of them; for the intensity of Freddie’s guilt and shame and fear; for the unholy bargain he considers that is, unlike Faland, wholly understandable even as it is also horrific and tragic; for the ever increasing dread and tension; and finally for the thematic question at their core: what do our traumas make of us and are we ourselves if we choose to give them up?

The scenes with Laura share a similar theme of loss, guilt, and trauma, of being haunted by the past (and here again Arden literalizes the metaphor), though they didn’t quite land with the same impact as Freddie’s storyline. Part of it is her story feels more external than internal. Another part is things fall in line a bit too easily for her, possible obstacles slid out of the way sometimes before they even arise, as when she needs to get back to the front, and she’s given a method immediately via Mary Borden. Similar easings of her path occur, but I won’t go into detail so as to avoid spoilers.

This was one of the issues I have with the novel. The other is that for as well written as it is (and it is absolutely well-written on a sentence level), as vivid its detail, as compelling as Freddie’s story is, some potential depth felt left on the cutting room floor. If the devil is real, then what does that mean for god? And if god is also real, as would seem implied, what does that mean for his existence side by side with the horrors of the war? The characters also seem to come to an acceptance of who Faland is, but almost with a shrug with little further thought given to it. And there’s another aspect that feel unnecessary (in fact, I’d say disappointing), more than a little out of the blue, and shockingly unexamined, but again, I don’t want to detail it, so I’ll just leave the complaint unfortunately vague.

Despite those issues, Arden’s lyrically rich prose, sharply visualized historical detail, deft hand with structure, tension, and the numinous, and the compelling nature of Freddie’s story make for a captivating story that is easy to recommend.

Published in February 2024. January 1918. Laura Iven was a revered field nurse until she was wounded and discharged from the medical corps, leaving behind a brother still fighting in Flanders. Now home in Halifax, Canada, Laura receives word of Freddie’s death in combat, along with his personal effects—but something doesn’t make sense. Determined to uncover the truth, Laura returns to Belgium as a volunteer at a private hospital, where she soon hears whispers about haunted trenches and a strange hotelier whose wine gives soldiers the gift of oblivion. Could Freddie have escaped the battlefield, only to fall prey to something—or someone—else? November 1917. Freddie Iven awakens after an explosion to find himself trapped in an overturned pillbox with a wounded enemy soldier, a German by the name of Hans Winter. Against all odds, the two form an alliance and succeed in clawing their way out. Unable to bear the thought of returning to the killing fields, especially on opposite sides, they take refuge with a mysterious man who seems to have the power to make the hellscape of the trenches disappear. As shells rain down on Flanders and ghosts move among those yet living, Laura’s and Freddie’s deepest traumas are reawakened. Now they must decide whether their world is worth salvaging—or better left behind entirely.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.