Confession: I’m completely drawn to the idea of the afterlife. When I look around and see people with such life, such dazzle – with their souls practically exploding out from inside them – it makes so much sense to me that something inside us keeps living after we die. Because of this, I’m always interested and excited to see how other storytellers imagine or envision what happens to us in the afterlife. This was one reason I was drawn in by award-winning novelist Mary Robinette Kowal’s (Shades of Milk and Honey) latest offering, Ghost Talkers.
Ghost Talkers is set in the midst of a re-imaged World War I, inspired by the crucial role that women played on the European front even though they couldn’t fight in battles. Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress, is a chief player in the “Spirit Corps” – what appears to be a hospitality unit but is secretly a group of mediums and spiritualists who help the British forces obtain crucial information from the ghosts of dead soldiers.
With the help of her fellow mediums and her fiance (a British Captain), Ginger embarks on a dangerous mission to find a German spy and protect the Spirit Corps from being discovered – all while navigating the terrifying realities of war. Who is a friend? Who is a foe? Can she persevere through her own mental anguish and exhaustion at half-living in the world of the ghosts?
Kowal has a little for everyone in Ghost Talkers. In many ways, it’s a solid romance with some unique conflicts for our heroine and hero to overcome. It straddles a cool line between sci-fi and fantasy with nods to each genre and a neat sense of a secret, fantastical world living right inside our own universe. As the story unfolds from Ginger’s perspective, we not only get a striking sense of being a woman in a male-dominated field in the early 1900’s, but we get used to a whole new set of vocabulary that goes along with her spiritualist abilities.
Ginger is a classic fantasy heroine in many ways – spunky and smart, hardworking, and just a little bit different from those around her (due to her American sass, perhaps?). The thing I admire the most about Ginger is her bravery and willingness to change tactics or even beliefs after she learns new things.
An early example given of this is her friendship with Helen, another gifted medium in her circle who is unable to be promoted or even to enter certain tents and buildings because of racial laws at the time (Helen is West Indian). Ginger must navigate her own admiration of Helen in a time and place when, to most, Helen would automatically be written off as “less-than” because of her skin color. I saw my own white privilege in Ginger during certain scenes – something not always comfortable, but a reality that is important to recognize.
Ghost Talkers is an easy read; though the subject matter is dark, it’s written in a straightforward style befitting our sensible heroine. Not too wordy, with a good amount of dialog, the writing is a solid foundation for the reader to bring the characters and the world to life in their imagination.
But I think the thing that makes a truly good storyteller is that they leave you with something more than just character development, world-building, and strong prose. Here were the thoughts I was left with after reading Ghost Talkers:
Even though wars are fought over differences and disagreements – it’s inevitable that war is a great equalizer. Everyone has, not only a desire to survive, but a desire to make a difference. War highlights something already inside us at all times: an urge to make our loved ones proud, both in how we live and how we die. Kowal’s exploration of the afterlife gives her ghosts the ability to attend to their unfinished business here on earth before they are drawn away to the mysterious beyond.
But time is short. Working together, working for the greater good, is the only way to get stuff done. I think I’ll be mulling over these ghostly lessons for a while yet. I need the reminder every once in awhile.