Faren Miller reviews Mary Robinette Kowal

Ghost Talkers, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor 978-0-7653-7825-5, $24.99, 300pp, hc) August 2016. Cover by Chris McGrath.

Mary Robinette Kowal had her own ways of find­ing gritty truths in the course of her five ‘‘Glam­ourist Histories’’, where the forces of history, and the waywardness of life (and character) shatter the gloss that can make standard Regency Romantic Fantasy seem bland. When she turns to a mixture of spycraft and spiritualism in Ghost Talkers, this apparent standalone is even more brutally direct about the horrific death tolls of Britain’s Great War (World War One), showing its ghosts as they see themselves in their last moments. The first line is stark enough: ‘‘The Germans were flanking us at Delville Wood when I died.’’ The medium in charge of this Spirit Circle touches his soul directly and feels this: ‘‘He is leaning against a wall, trying not to look at where his legs used to be…. He blinks, trying to focus, but the world is starting to go grey around the edges.’’

British troops have been conditioned to report back to the medium (intensely aware of them even while ‘‘anchored’’ by mundanes, plus one back-up spiritualist). Though circle members work covertly – posing as genteel ladies running ‘‘hos­pitality huts’’ not all that far from the trenches of France – it’s a demanding form of spycraft in its own right. Ginger, the medium and viewpoint character throughout the book, knows the danger:

Even alternating control, their three-hour shifts were soul-numbing. The sheer number of deaths over the past two weeks had forced all the mediums to go to double shifts, and Ginger was not at all sure how long they could continue that pace. Already one girl had lost her grip on her body. They were keeping her physical form comfortable, in hopes that her soul would find its way back, but it seemed unlikely.

Conditions worsen further, with what may be the first indications that Germany knows about the Corps and is searching for the means to counter or destroy it: a night attack on an encampment where soldiers are sleeping, and the deaths of two officers by what seems to be murder.

When murder victims don’t know who or what killed them, they linger. Two spirits have some connection to the greatest mystery of all: the full nature of the German threat. An intelligence operative who seems to have been killed for what he learned can’t hang on to enough of it to pass on (in either sense of those words). He comes to haunt Ginger, trying to steer her down the path he took to that lost knowledge, even as his essence threatens to slip away – furiously determined to be more than a fading wisp.

His continuing presence leads her to a Front that throngs with post-traumatic stress. For a Sensi­tive, it’s horror: ‘‘memories crowded in with every thundering concussion’’ and ‘‘brimstone-scented air burned with reminders of death.’’ Though the medium’s awareness of emotions in the form of multi-colored auras (vivid throughout the book) might seem to give Ginger an advantage over the ghost beside her, this lets her ‘‘see the emotion, but not understand the reason behind it.’’ While her fondness for stories of Watson and Holmes can’t really help her here, her driving need to understand does yield results – enough to save some lives, but not to stop a war.

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