Review: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Publisher: Tor Books on August 16, 2016

Source: Netgalley

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My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force.

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Ginger Stuyvesant faces many obstacles to her participation in the WWI Allied war effort, including her gender, her American heritage, and the top-secret nature of her contribution. As a member of the Spirit Corps, a cadre of spirit mediums, Ginger channels the spirits of fallen soldiers to share in their last moments to unearth information about the German’s plans. Although this work is a crucial component of the British war effort, it goes largely unrecognized and takes a terrible toll on the mediums that must live through the traumatic deaths of hundreds of soldiers.

As if that weren’t draining enough, Ginger must constantly deflect enquiries about the finer points of the mediums’ work and the Spirit Corp’s location because of the sensitive nature of their activities. Through it all though, Ginger is fairly lucky: she’s not at the front, she’s with her friends, and has occasion to see her fiancé Ben – a British intelligence officer – frequently. But all that changes when someone close to her is murdered and Ginger finds herself being haunted by their rapidly deteriorating and increasingly erratic spirit, hell-bent on identifying the person who killed them. Over the course of a few days, Ginger and the spirit (along with some other allies) travel to and from the front in search of answers…but they have their work cut out for them, because it’s not easy catching a single killer during war time.

Admittedly I figured out who the killer was pretty quickly, but given Ginger’s grief I can understand why she wasn’t able to see what was right in front of her face. While the mystery plot line drives the story forward, it’s hardly the most important or compelling aspect of GHOST TALKERS so I wasn’t too annoyed by the obviousness of it all.

GHOST TALKERS is best described as part paranormal fantasy, part WWI drama, and part police procedural. I love all of these components on their own, and I thought they worked really well when combined; it’s a winning formula! But Mary Robinette Kowal’s world building is anything but formulaic, with a very layered spirit world and magic system taking center stage. My favourite scenes by far were those in the tents serving as the Spirit Corp’s headquarters, where Ginger and her fellow mediums anchor themselves into circles of power to commune with departed soldiers. These soldiers’ accounts of their final moments were chilling, at times chock-full of crucial intelligence and revealing nothing of import at others. I thought this was particularly clever of Kowal, since it brought a level of authenticity to the magic system: most soldiers wouldn’t have seen anything of critical importance before they died, so those less than helpful reports grounded the Spirit Corps’ work in reality.

Despite the strength of the magic system used by the mediums and the excellent development of the Spirit Corps, I did have some issues with the depiction of the historical setting in GHOST TALKERS. Ginger and her fellow mediums – the majority of whom are women – face sexism and sexual harassment, and Ginger’s friend Helen grapples with racism and segregation; however, these issues were not presented with the seriousness and maliciousness that would have been present at the time. The idea of a woman, especially an upper class American like Ginger, crawling through the trenches without being stopped is just too unbelievable without an excellent explanation…which wasn’t present. I love historical fantasy novels for their commitment to the details of the period but I’m happy to accept alterations to the society that allow women and visible minorities more freedom (i.e. Memoirs of Lady Trent, Sorcerer to the Crown, and The Midnight Queen) but I do expect there to be an explanation for these freedoms, magical or otherwise.

Overall, I really enjoyed GHOST TALKERS and I would happily read more books set in this universe, although it is a stand-alone title for the moment. If you’re looking for a WWI drama that’s somewhat light on historical details but heavy on character development with an intriguing magical system, then GHOST TALKERS is for you!

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  • I’m so glad you enjoyed this book, I have a copy that I need to read at some point and after reading your review, I’m even more anxious to jump in! The combination of history and paranormal sounds so interesting and isn’t my typical “go to.”

    • I really enjoyed it! I’ve read a lot of great historical paranormal novels, but none with such a cool take on the crime solving element. I’m eager to see what else the gang gets up to if Kowal writes more!

  • What an interesting premise! Very cool. I’d love to try it out

  • Yeah, I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but something about the setting/historical era didn’t feel…convincing to me. I know this is spec fic and anything can go, but if you’re setting a book in a specific period like WWI you really have to either commit to the nitty gritty details of history or sacrifice atmosphere, there’s no way around it.

    • Having read Kowal’s other historical spec fic series, I definitely think she does a better job of selling the world and and era with those books than she did here. I think WWI and WWII spec novels are tricky to pull off because of what you said: atmosphere and historical details have to work perfectly together.

  • What an interesting idea! I can imagine it would be hard to keep with the social norms of the time during WWI, but I do feel a little guilty in saying that it probably wouldn’t phase me. If I’m hooked on a book I put blinders on and stampede through the book, ignoring the obvious and obtuse errors.
    Great review! I will definitely be looking into this one. 😀

    • LOL don’t feel guilty! I’m the same way when I *really* love a book – I’ll completely forgive anachronisms in favour of a great story, same as you! This one just wasn’t quite at that level, you know? But I did really like it, and I definitely recommend it!

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I enjoyed this one too! I felt the premise was really interesting. And I agree, the “mystery” aspect of this was not really the compelling part of it.

    • Yeah I loved the premise too! Ginger was a strong protagonist too, I thought. The mystery wasn’t my fave but it wasn’t horrible either.

  • Glad to see you enjoyed this one. I’m not a big fan of WWI (or any real war, for that matter) settings in books, but I’m tempted to give this one a try. The concept sounds pretty interesting.

    • Honestly, neither am I. Normally I avoid war books like the plague (especially WWII), but this one sounded too good to pass up. It was a lot of fun! I’d recommend it, even to people who don’t normally like war stories.

  • Historical Fantasy is a genre I’m trying to learn to at least like more. I entered a Giveaway for this one and I hope it pans out! Great Review interested to learn what part police drama is!

    • Historical fantasy is my fave! There’s something about the atmosphere of a bygone era plus magic that just always works for me. Thanks, Tori! I hope you won the giveaway. 🙂

  • Lynn Williams

    Wow – I hadn’t realised this was a standalone! I do fancy this one – eventually, time permitting!
    Lynn 😀

    • Standalones are such a pleasant surprise, aren’t they? Honestly though, I would gladly read another story in this universe! Haha.

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I think this book would have been hard if they stopped her in the trenches. I just took that as part of the fictional aspect, but I can see what you are saying about it.

    • Oh yeah, I totally agree: Ginger wouldn’t have been able to do much sleuthing without getting into the trenches. I just wish the explanation for her presence there was more fleshed out and realistic!

  • I’m totally intrigued by this book. I’ve seen it about and it looks interesting and quite different from my usual reads. I’m not a massive fan of books set during the world wars (don’t ask, I think it’s war fatigue from years of history lessons) so I was thinking I might avoid this book. But paranormal fantasy police procedural? I definitely want to read that because that sounds interesting, especially when it has a good magic system in place as well (I want that to be believable I hate when it just seems to be thrown together with no logic to how magic is working).

    It’s annoying the historical setting itself isn’t as strong as you might hope, especially without an explanation to justify the historical discrepancies. I’ll wait and see what I think once I get my hands on a copy but at least I’ll be prepared for it.

  • Absolutely love the sound of this. Thanks for the review!

    • Happy to write it! Haha. This one is definitely up your alley, Lorraine. 🙂