In 500 Words or Less: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
By Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor (304 pages, $24.99 hardcover/$11.99 paperback, August 2016)
Every year I end up teaching at least one section of Grade 10 Canadian History as part of my day job (yes, I work with high school students by choice on top of writing) and begin the course by talking about the First World War. I’ve discussed trenches, the Battle of the Somme, German artillery, etc. so often that that particular stretch of history feels like a long-time colleague. Which meant that Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ghost Talkers (my first exploration of her work, though I’ve listened to Writing Excuses for years) was interesting for me not just as an avid reader but also as a historian, to see how introducing mediums and spirits to the front lines would change the nature of the war.
The amount of research that Kowal must have done for this novel shows. From the dialogue between the characters, to the references to actual events and aspects of period culture and slang, the characters in Ghost Talkers felt the same as individuals from primary sources I’ve read for my teaching. At the same time, the characters are realistic and easy to relate to; central protagonist Ginger, one of the senior members of the army’s Spirit Corps, is particularly compelling because she’s motivated by the death and grief around her (some of which is quite personal) but keeps pushing herself to discover the threat against her people before it’s too late.
Ginger’s entire story is set against the historical fact of women’s status and patriarchal society at the time of the First World War (in Canada most women couldn’t vote at the time) and since part of the story is about women proving their worth in a “man’s war,” I’m left wondering what would happen at the end of this alternate war. Would women be forced to go back to their traditional roles, like in our world, or would things be different?
I would obviously hope for the latter, and there’s an optimistic tone throughout Ghost Talkers that reinforces this hope. The same sort of thing applies to questions of race; Kowal puts a spotlight on the Indian soldiers who fought under the British banner, but were considered second-class citizens even as they died for queen and country (just like FNMI soldiers were treated in the Canadian military). Though those historical focuses are interesting for someone like me, the novel is very much about its characters – Ginger, her beloved fellow soldier Ben, the quirky but dependable Merrow and the tough old bird Mrs. Richardson, among others – so that even if you’re not familiar with the history of the war, these characters will be compelling just for how fleshed out they are.
As a first read of Kowal’s work, I’m definitely impressed.
This post comes to you straight from Ad Astra! (Sort of — imagine it’s like a late-night TV show that airs “live” but is actually recorded during the day). I’ll be hanging out all weekend at Ad Astra in Toronto; keep an eye on my Twitter feed, and give me a shout if you’re there!
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published in On Spec, Third Flatiron Anthologies, and The 2017 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. His Stormtalons short story, “Wizard-sitting,” with the Ed Greenwood Group, is now available from Onder Librum and other platforms. Learn more at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly.
I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while now. I wrote my dissertation on a US-born London-based poet who was neck-deep in spiritualism through both world wars. Everything I’ve seen about Ghost Talkers suggests impeccable research and a deep grasp of the occult subculture that sets off the what-if.
Will Kowal follow up with a WWII novel in this series? The spiritualists were up to all kinds of interesting hijinks right up to the end.
Thanks for the comment, Sarah! It really is an excellent novel, especially for the research Kowal seems to have put in.
I haven’t heard anything about a sequel, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’ll be at the SFWA weekend next week, so if I happen to meet her, I’ll ask 🙂