Haunted Without Haunting
If you’re looking for a book with great ideas, lots of dramatic tension, and believable magic set in rich historical context, Ghost Talkers is your book. Though honestly, any of Mary Robinette Kowal’s novels fit that description—she is the queen of historical fantasy. But does the Hugo-Award winner deliver in her new standalone? Yes and no—let’s start with the yeses.
Yes on concept. As always, Kowal’s basic idea for the book is brilliant: spirit mediums are real, working on the front lines of the Allied army in World War One to gather intelligence from newly departed soldiers. It’s haunting work, but young American volunteer medium Ginger Stuyvesant is dedicated to giving the Allies an edge—plus staying close to her British fiancée. But when he shows up at work, a murdered spirit… then the drama begins. Unable to leave because of the danger Ginger is in (he’s murdered as part of a larger plot to discover the spirit mediums’s location) and his need to find a killer, Ginger must work with him to unravel the plot and find the killer—even as they deal with the impossibility of their relationship, and fiancée Ben’s spirit gradually loses coherence. Needless to say, that emotional backdrop plus the rich (and unfamiliar, and well-researched) setting of WWI France supporting a thriller-paced murder mystery with feminist underpinnings—it makes for a great read. Yes on drama, and yes on the fun/educational/surprise-factor only historical fiction can deliver.
And yes on magic! Based again on research into the time, MRK’s spirit mediumship fits the story and the historical context like a glove: reading auras, explaining death and dying, gaining her character insight into another world of emotional auras and wandering ghosts and a dear unraveling fiancée—it’s great.
So what didn’t work as well? Of course this is just one reader reaction, but the story itself felt mechanical. Once the dead body is in place, it becomes a pretty standard mystery, and though the emotion remains high with Ginger’s disintegrating lover, the piecing together of clues and revelation of the murderer lack much punch. Following the theory of the Writing Excuses podcast Kowal creates, it’s hard to say whether this is mainly a relationship or mystery story—both seem to take backstage for the other, and the middle half of the book isn’t as gripping as it might be if one or the other took center stage.
Still, it’s a great read, and the cleverness of the basic concept carried us through the stiffer parts of the plot. In interests of full disclosure, MRK’s very popular Glamourist History series didn't grip us as well as it did others, so it may just be reader preference. All the elements are there, but instead of being haunting, Ghost Talkers is just a pleasant read.