Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Book Review - Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Tor Books
Publication Date: August 16th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Ginger Stuyvesant is stationed in France with the Spirit Corps. The Spirit Corps is ostensibly there to provide hospitality rooms for the soldiers. A place for them to sit down, have a cup of tea and a bit of a chat with a pretty lady, maybe a dance, so they can have a bit of normalcy when they get away from the front. But the spirits the Corps are dealing with aren't just of the morale boasting variety. The tents and the tea, besides providing much needed support, are also the front for their real purpose; spiritualism. Ginger is a medium and she works with her circle to take the reports of recently fallen soldiers. Each soldier, before heading to the front, is conditioned to report to Potter's Field when they die. The giant warehouse, chilled by the spirits coming through, has circles of two mediums and their anchors, waiting for the dead to tell their final minutes. Conditioned to report on their death and any other important details, such as troop positions or gun turrets, these soldiers don't die in vain. They are able to give vital information after their last breath and go to their well deserved rest.

There are two things keeping Ginger at her post. While the valuable work she is doing is of the utmost importance, it would be a lie to say that she doesn't take comfort in being near her fiance, Captain Benjamin Hartshorne. Yet something odd happens when Ben is at the front. There is evidence from two different sources that the Germans are not only aware of the true purpose of the Spirit Corps, but that the Corps is being targeted. The higher ups won't listen to Ginger thinking that it's utter nonsense that the Spirit Corps is being targeted. She needs Ben to back her up. He's an intelligence officer and his voice is heard in meetings where she's often asked to get the tea. But then everything changes. Ginger's greatest fear has always been that Ben would report in to Potter's Field. There's a huge backlog one day and Ginger fears that all these deaths were for one purpose only, to stall the Spirit Corps so valuable information can't get through. Valuable information that Ben might have when Ginger spots him. When she realizes he is dead her world collapses. But Ben isn't like the other ghosts checking in, he's not going to rest until he finds his killer and protects the Spirit Corps with the help of Ginger.

Ghost Talkers is Mary Robinette Kowal's first novel not set within the world of the Glamourist Histories which I love so dearly. I am all for authors branching out, especially when they maintain their quality of prose, character creation, and worldbuilding like Mary does her. Instead of creating an alternate history we are given more a secret history with Ghost Talkers. The Spirit Corps could actually have existed as a shadowy organization and I think that is one of the things that I love most about this book. The fact that it could have been. Working within the actual framework of history to create a story that isn't just plausible by possible to the reader is a grand achievement. The conceit with how the Spirit Corps collects information just makes sense. To use two mediums and a circle of other people who would otherwise have nothing to give to the war effort, from old women to wounded soldiers, as their anchor to this plane of existence just seems logical. The way Mary describes how the mediums experience the reporting soldiers' last minutes as well as the toll on their bodies, to the lure of just letting go of your decaying heavy corporeal form, it's so real that it's like you're reading about something that happened, and who's to say it didn't?

But Mary takes her "spiritbuilding" beyond just the simple exchange of information from a reporting dead solider to a medium. With the death of Ben we get to see the spirit realm not just from Ginger's point of view but also from Ben's which is piercing the veil. The way Ginger sees Ben as shifting from standing to sitting to rocking to saluting all at once makes you not just see the transitory state Ben is trapped in but it also latches onto the fact that ghosts are entities of emotion, and emotions from rage to love can all exist simultaneously, much as Ben does in all these different stances. The idea that ghosts are really echoes and impressions of past emotions isn't a new concept, but the way Mary shows us how Ben is an amalgamation of these concentrated emotions gives a new depth to not only how we view the concept of ghosts in this world, but also a deeper understanding of what exactly is left of Ben and how Ginger loves him dearly. What I found most fascinating though was the idea that a ghost whose emotions take him over is what is a poltergeist. Ben could forever be trapped in that one emotion: rage or fear or despair. Forever. You can see why Ginger does all she can to ground him. Not just out of fear of what could be, but love for what a great man she lost.

This nailing of ghostly interaction while making it wholly her own isn't the only instance of Mary being able to take something that is ephemeral and give it a voice that we as readers relate to. I am speaking of Ginger's dreams, or nightmares in some cases. Now you might be wondering, how can a dream sequence be wrong, everyone dreams differently and therefore there can be all manner of weird dreams? Yet, correct me if I'm wrong, but I would be willing to bet good money that you've been watching some TV show or movie and they've had a dream sequence and you just didn't think it was believable. There wasn't enough grounding in the character's reality, and they just went for the gimmicky and the weird versus the believable. Because, believe you me, dreams do have logic! Why else would there be so many people trying to interpret them? Every dream I have I can tie back to something I've worried about or seen, even if it ends with me in a swimming competition with Captain America, I can still tell you where that came from. And yes, that was a dream I had this week. David Lynch and Joss Whedon are what people should aim for, and what I think Mary achieved. And as for the lucid dreaming. That's a whole other level of perfection and horror.

As for grounding in the real world, versus the subconscious or supernatural, what I found delightful was the mentions of Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini as agents working to hide the existence of the Spirit Corps and the truth that spiritualism works. The "real" history of this is that Conan Doyle was obsessed with spiritualism, belonging to many societies, championing the truth of the Cottingley Fairies; he wrote books on his beliefs, his wife even believed herself to be a medium. He was the poster boy for spiritualism. Enter his good friend Harry Houdini. Houdini was a big mama's boy and when she died he was desperate to make contact with her. He wanted to believe in spiritualism but all he saw was people using the same tricks he used in his magic acts to con gullible and grieving people. Houdini even offered a cash prize to anyone who could prove they were a real medium. Needless to say it was never collected. Houdini's zeal in debunking false mediums caused a rift between him and Conan Doyle that turned into public antagonism and hatred. Now want if it was all smoke and mirrors? What if this big debacle was all masterminded to protect a valuable secret? I just get chills thinking about it and hope it's explored further in later books.

The true heart of the novel though is the love between Ginger and Ben. If their doomed love wasn't believable than Ghost Talkers would not have worked. But the problem is we join then relationship firmly established and then challenged. To form a bond between readers and the relationship between characters it's often best to see the whole arc of their relationship from beginning to end. And while we do get glimpses of the past in Ginger's dreams and in her conversations with Ben, it's almost like they're a fait accompli. There's nothing left but to wait for their tragic ending. So it's hard to see them together. We've just joined them at the end of their story. But then that all changed. Ginger asks Ben what is was that made him fall in love with her and he talks about her love for Brussels sprouts. In this little reminiscence you see the depth of their connection, you see their love. It's a love story not writ large, but writ small, the size of a little sprout. This somehow makes their connection so real that it physically aches when you think that by the time you finish this book they will no longer be together. To get across that it's the little things that make love love shows the depth of Mary's storytelling. She gets the little details right, and that just helps with the big, and then you have a book that feels whole.


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