Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ghost Talkers - Mary Robinette Kowal

In the Netherlands it is not very noticeable, but our neighbours are in the middle of a string of centenaries of major events in the First World War. The period was no picnic in our neck of the woods, but the Netherlands did manage to stay neutral through the four years of bloodshed taking place elsewhere in Europe. As a result, the conflict that enveloped the world some two decades later receives much more attention. Personally, I have always had more of an interest in the Great War. It was the end of nineteenth century Europe and the beginning of a great many things that still shape the world today. Given the enormous changes the conflict brought about, it is not surprising a number of works of speculative fiction are appearing that deal with the period. Ghost Talkers is one of those books.

The year is 1916 and the Battle of the Somme is in full swing. In an effort to move the offensive forward, no means are left untried. Ginger Stuyvesant is an American heiress engaged to the British captain Benjamin Harford. She is a medium working with the Spirit Corps. Her corps has found a way to compel the souls of dead soldiers to report in before they move on to the great beyond and relay the circumstance of their deaths. This way, even in death, they can relay essential tactical information. The existence of this corps is a closely guarded secret. When Ginger uncovers evidence of a traitor in the British ranks, she soon finds herself embroiled in a game of espionage in which she is the main target.

The speculative element of the novel takes the upper hand in the story. It is very much a fantasy novel and only then a historical one. There is still quite a bit of history in it though. The title may surprise some readers, as it appears to be an allusion to a group of soldiers better known for their role in the Second World War. On a limited scale the US army did employ native American code talkers in the final stages of the war. The US had not entered the war at the time of the battle of the Somme however, and using codes to securely relay messages takes different forms in the book. Kowal does not focus on the battle that is the background of the story. Instead she depicts life right behind the lines with an emphasis on the role of women in the war effort.

There are lots of little details in the story that show the author has researched the period in detail. The presence of a soldier named Tolkien on the battlefield (his experiences at the Somme would work his way into The Lord of the Rings), the literature discussed, the social mores and how the war influences them, the support structure for the soldiers and the English used in the dialogue. Whether or not she succeeds in that last aspect, I will leave to readers better qualified than me. It didn't strike me as out of place though. If you are looking for details on the actual fighting this book is probably not the one you are looking for, but as a snapshot of that particular moment in history it works nicely.

The romance in the novel did not really convince though. A stolen kiss here, a double entendre there, it is all very coy and proper and in line with what one would expect of two well-bred, early twentieth century, young people courting. It is almost cliché and at odds with the situation they are in however. Both of them are in constant mortal danger. War tends to loosen social restrictions, it encourages people to seize the moment while they still can. Ginger and Benjamin do not seem to entertain thoughts on their own mortality even in the face of the atrocious losses the British army suffered in the opening stages of the battle of the Somme. You'd think they would at the very least be a bit less resigned to waiting for their marriage.

The speculative element is provided by Kowal's version of spiritualism. She admits to adapting existing religious beliefs and parapsychology to the needs of the story. It is a set of beliefs that has always attracted a lot of charlatans, frauds and con-artists. That made it a bit hard to fully suspend my disbelief while reading this novel. It has to be said that Kowal uses this reputation well though. By discrediting the practice in public, the British try to avoid raising suspicion to what is going on.

Ginger's talent is a bit of a problem for the military commanders. She is a woman and not even a British one at that. As much as her superior would like to ignore her, he cannot without paying the price. This bit of rampant sexism can't be held in check permanently of course. Ginger has to push harder than any of the men serving under the commander to get him to listen. A coalition of people usually ignored by the powers that be help her get her point across.

What Kowal does very well with the speculative element of the story, is use it to explore love and loss. For a medium, death is not the end. It creates possibilities that a normal person would not have. It allows you to hold on to a loved one in this world, or conversely, to follow into the beyond. The temptation to be selfish or just give up can be overwhelming at times. Ginger goes through all that and more in what is a very harrowing couple of days for her. What makes this novel a good one, whatever you may think of the premise, is how Kowal brings her characters to life. Once the story gets going, their affection, traumas, and triumphs leap from the page. It is a very clever book in a way too. Although they are impossible to miss, Kowal never lets her history, supernatural influences, or feminist elements dominate the story.

All things considered, Ghost Talkers is a book that would not have worked for me in the hands of a lesser writer. Kowal manages to pull it off though. It's a novel that could have gone of the track in half a dozen ways but the author manages to bring it to a convincing close. It strikes a good balance between the various themes and the demands of the story. It's a pretty fast paced story and not a particularly long novel but it has quite a lot lurking beneath the surface. I'm not sure if it will make mine, but I do know this book will end up on a few year's best lists and maybe even pick up an award nomination or two. It's probably not everybody's cup of tea but clearly one of the more notable releases of 2016.

Book Details
Title: Ghost Talkers
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 304
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7825-5
First published: 2016

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