Book Review: Ghost Talkers

Ghost Talkersghosttalkersby Mary Robinette KowalTor, 2016The five novels of Mary Robinette Kowal's wonderfully enchanting “Glamourist Histories” imagined the world of Jane Austen's England and beyond as a place not only filled with refinement and witticism but also with magic, a “glamour”-based system of enchantments Kowal imagined to the last practical detail and confidently unfolded in the course of her heroine's adventures. And in many ways the most enjoyable aspect of the “Glamourist” novels was the fact that their wit and sparkling readability wouldn't have been lessened one bit if the supernatural elements had been quietly removed from the picture. These were historical novels with a light overlay of fantasy – a very well-made overlay of fantasy, but light nonetheless.That balance is in many ways altered in Kowal's new book, Ghost Talkers, the first in what we can assume is a new series. The setting here is the First World War, in which strong-willed, cerebral American heiress Ginger Stuyvesant is in London doing her part for the war effort as a member of the Spirit Corps, a branch of British intelligence services trafficking in the supernatural. A very specific kind of supernatural: the Spirit Corps processes the returned spirits of soldiers who've just been killed on the Western Front. These soldiers have been conditioned in their basic training to “report back” to the Spirit Corps when they're killed in action, so they can be debriefed one last time on the latest troop movements and gun placements of the Germans.For Ginger, it's a job – exhausting, fulfilling, but a normal part of the larger world. She's engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford; she's frustrated by departmental inertia; she must deal with the casual racism and sexism of the era – it's all of a piece, as she patiently explains to her over-protective fiance:

“There will be danger wherever I am. A zeppelin might get past our aeroplanes and bomb us. Or my circle might break and my soul could detach from my body. Or I could fall down our billet's stupidly steep steps and break my neck.”

Ginger and her colleagues summon the ghosts of the recently slain, take their depositions, and hear any final requests or thoughts they might have before they go beyond “the veil” into a heavily implied afterlife. Ginger can also allow herself to feel their last memories and sensations, in scenes and glimpses that allow Kowal to indulge in the quick, disquieting detail-work that she used to such winning effect in “The Glamourist Histories.” One soldier remembers a long-anticipated bath:

He is soaking in the giant vats they use for bathing the soldiers who are fresh out of the trenches. Big steaming things, kept hot all day round because it would take too long to warm up that much water. Used to be for making wine in, before the war. He can slide all the way down to his neck, and the weightlessness is enough to almost make him forget the past three days. Shell, after shell, after shell, till he was the only one left of his company. He ducks his head under the water, scrubbing at his hair. Keeps thinking he feels bits of stuff stuck to his scalp, but he's bathed enough that it can't still be pieces of brain.

When the memories of the soldier in the bath extend to his sudden drowning there by a man in uniform, Ginger finds herself embroiled in which her spiritualist powers may be of only dubious assistance – and where her superiors are either condescendingly indifferent or, as increasingly becomes clear, directly implicated. This melding of standard mechanical genre plotting with atmospheric fantasy is something Kowal does very well; there's no temptation in Ghost Talker's 300 pages ever to stop reading, no scene that feels aimless, no plot twist that doesn't feel earned. In fact, the only such execution problem arises, oddly enough, from one of Kowal's strongest suits: world-building. In an alternate society in which it's a well-known and calmly accepted fact that death is just a change of address (Kowal goes out of her way to portray the spirits of those dead soldiers as merely grumpy and inconvenienced – they're neither traumatized by being dead nor worried about the very existence of “the veil”), why would the crime of murder be as serious a thing as Ginger and everybody else in the book seems to consider it? Why does violence – why does war itself – feel the same in Ghost Talkers as it does in the real world, even though everybody in Ghost Talkers is demonstrably immortal?Fortunately, this is an author who can be counted on to have thought of all such questions long before her readers. Yet another reason to look forward to future books in this new series.