Ghost Talkers treads familiar ground. In fact, the ground is so well-trodden by the boots of hundreds of novels, films, documentaries, and video games that it’s nothing but a once lush field of grass turned to mud and boot prints. You’d be forgiven for avoiding yet another narrative set to the backdrop of the Great War—but, like all good narratives, Ghost Talkers rises above the over-familiarity of its setting to offering something unique.
Meet the Spirit Corps—the titular “ghosts talkers”—a group of men and women who use their occult magic to communicate with the spirits of dead soldiers, giving the British forces a leg-up against their enemies during World War I. From Helen to Edna, Mr. Haden to Mrs. Richardson, each member of the Spirit Corps feels real and motivated. Relationships linger between them, not always tied to Ginger Stuyvesant, Ghost Talkers’ hero. You get the sense that much happens behind the scenes for these characters, which enriches the story, and makes the narrative punches hit harder. I was reminded most, oddly, of BBC’s Call the Midwife, a television series which features similar depths within the relationships between various characters. Just imagine that Jenny, Trixie, and the rest were gun-wielding, ghost-corralling psychic mediums fighting from just behind the front lines at Amiens, rather than life-saving and community-binding healthcare providers.
No surprise from Kowal, Ghost Talkers features strong characters of all race and gender, and she had a lot of fun breaking down and stomping on some of the genre’s biggest cliches. Take this early amusing scene between Ginger and her fiancé, Benjamin Harford:
“As a man, I would be branded a coward were I to respond rationally to the danger of war. As a woman, no one expects you —”
“As a woman—!”
“Ginger—you are raising your voice,” Ben straightened and took her hand, raising it to kiss as a pantomime for any onlookers. At the touch, his eyes widened a little. Though not a medium, Ben was a sensitive and, as such, could see her aura clearly when touching her.
She wanted to yank away from him, but managed to tilt her head and smile. In another setting, the heat in her cheeks might look like a maiden’s blush instead of the anger it was, but Ben certainly could not miss that her aura had gone as red as her hair. With as sweet a voice as she could produce, Ginger simpered. “Oh, Captain Harford. You are so brave. I am only a simple girl.”
It does double duty, letting the reader in on the mechanical workings of spirit magic, as well as giving them a very clear picture of the Ginger and Ben’s personalities and relationship. This sort of deft writing and scene building is found throughout the novel, making the novel rich, intricate, and approachable all at once.
Throughout Ghost Talkers, readers are introduced to a huge variety of characters in a milieu (front lines of World War I) that is often dominantly populated by young white men. Mrs. Richardson is a member of the Spirit Corps, but she is also a proactive warrior—and a grandmother. Corporal Patel is a battle-hardened veteran of the Indian Army who’s been relegated to being a driver because of the institutionalized racism that pervaded the British military structure at the time. Both are instrumental and tremendously brave individuals whom Ginger must rely on to resolve the novel’s central conflict.
At it’s core, Ghost Talkers is a murder mystery, and so, naturally, the whodunnit has a twist. Is it predictable? Sure—I accurately guessed the culprit halfway through the novel. But, Kowal plots intricately, plants enough red herrings, and doesn’t lean on the twist, so, despite its predictability, the reveal still manages to satisfy. I was shocked but not surprised.
Ghost Talkers is a grim book, if you just consider the bullet points. Readers are literally in the trenches alongside British troops being bombed German soldiers, and Kowal doesn’t skimp on the details. There’s death—of course, it’s war—but there’s also a respect for the psychological effects of war. Several of the characters, including Ginger, have to deal with the effects of “shellshock” (or, as it’s now known, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD), and it’s clear that Kowal approached the issue with research and respect for the condition. As much as Ghost Talkers is a cozy mystery novel with a supernatural conceit, it’s also an exploration of how war affects people, and how the human spirit perseveres and finds goodness even during evil times.
Another aspect that I appreciated, which is often difficult to find in novels that could otherwise be described as “cozy,” is consequence for the characters’ actions. In a story that includes ghosts and bodily possession, Kowal could easily have cheated through some of the more complicated conflicts, especially those dealing with loss and death, but she doesn’t let herself off of the hook, resulting in some heart-wrenching moments of bravery, sacrifice, and finality.
Despite all of this, the book is a breeze to read, never burdening the reader, and much of this success comes down to Kowal’s restrained but precise instincts for injecting humour and sweetness into a narrative that revolves so heavily around death, loss, and darkness. There’s just the right amount of humour, some of which made me actually laugh out loud, but it never feels cheap or overdone. It’s earned, so feels genuine. Laughter and camaraderie during dark hours is an important aspect of troop morale, and Kowal uses this as a building block for some of Ghost Talker‘s more captivating relationships.
Ghost Talkers is an unwaveringly smart novel about love, loss, family, and loyalty. All the best aspects of Kowal’s writing are on full display—from razor-sharp wit, to lush, flowing prose, to characters who immediately and indefinitely fit themselves into the empty places in your head and heart. Show me a Mary Robinette Kowal story I don’t like, and I’ll look you in the eye and call you a “liar.”
Hugo Award winner Aidan Moher is the founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He regularly contributes to Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and several other websites. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.