In “Ghost Talkers,” Mary Robinette Kowal takes the real-life tragedy of World War I and infuses it with the fantastic. A medium working for British intelligence contacts dead soldiers, who report back to the living on the position of German forces.
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor, 304 pp., $24.99
In Mary Robinette Kowal’s version of World War I, there are no materialists in the foxholes. While British soldiers and their allies fight Germans on the ground, American heiress Ginger Stuyvesant battles Jerry through the ether. She’s a medium.
In “Shades of Milk and Honey” (2010) and her succeeding Jane Austen-inspired novels, Kowal took well-researched reality and added one fantastic notion — glamour, a form of magic worked by manipulating strands of the ether. She pulls a similar trick in “Ghost Talkers,” creating a world different enough from ours to be fresh but close enough to this one to feel real.
In this alterna-England of 1916, Stuyvesant and other members of the Spirit Corps speak with the ghosts of recently deceased British soldiers, who have been ingeniously conditioned to report back to the living before they are drawn off by the famed bright light on the other side. The ghostly soldiers provide intelligence on the activity and position of German force.
Medium talent is rare. Like her few peers, Stuyvesant is overworked, though her spirit is lifted by the presence of her fiancé Capt. Ben Hartshorne, a British intelligence officer. This being 1916, it’s a chaste romance, but a passionately felt one — particularly because Stuyvesant can read Hartshorne’s emotional aura, and the captain has a touch of paranormal sensitivity himself.
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To Stuyvesant’s dismay, she receives the ghost of a soldier killed right in the French town where she is stationed, then the ghost of someone she loves, also murdered. These deaths reveal that traitors are working with the Germans to neutralize the Spirit Corps. With help from a ghost who can’t rest until his murderer is caught, Stuyvesant heads toward the front lines on a dangerous mission.
Just as Connie Willis salutes the resilience of Brits in her fiction about England during World War II, Kowal pays similar tribute in this novel through her depiction of grandmotherly Mrs. Richardson and invalided Lt. Plumber, “unsighted” normal humans who serve as grounds to anchor the Spirit Corps mediums to this world.
Through Stuyvesant, Kowal also takes on, at times pugnaciously, the classism, sexism and racism of the British Army brass of that time period. The commanding officer won’t acknowledge Helen Jackson’s leadership of the mediums because she is black. Stuyvesant herself is discounted because she is a woman. A brave soldier is relegated to transportation duty because he is Indian.
Kowal seeds her novel with friendly name-drops for Brit-lit and fantasy fans. Arthur Conan Doyle is part of the disinformation campaign to protect the Spirit Corps’ cover, and a Lt. Tolkien assists the company. Fans of the Whoverse will be sure to notice a cameo by the Fourth Doctor.