My rating: 4 of 5 stars
**A massive thank you to Tor Books for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**
I’m a fan of Mary Robinette Kowal. I ate up her Glamourist Histories series like an addict, and upon finishing, I knew that I was on board for whatever she was to write thereafter. When this book’s synopsis was released, I knew that I would like it: an alternate history, set in WWI no less, involving a Spirit Corps of mediums who use the information gleaned from the ghosts of dead soldiers to aid the war effort? Brilliant. Love it. I am also, I should admit, a sucker for WWI — I don’t see enough of it onscreen or in fiction, so getting something so entrenched (no puns intended) in that world event was a joy. Throw in that wee bit of magic in the form of mediums and ghosts, and I’m practically leaping about with happiness.
If I were to describe the Glamourist Histories as “charming,” then Ghost Talkers is wholly “bittersweet,” but in the best way. The horrors of war are never shied away from, but nor are they glorified. The old saying that “war is hell” comes to mind, as it is the best way to describe the emotional roller-coaster that is Ghost Talkers. Very quickly, the novel lets you fall in love with characters before immediately snatching them away, sometimes in what can seem like a horrid, senseless swiftness. But that is war and that is death: it is swift, it is unforgiving, and, at times, it can seem senseless.
Now, the bulk of the novel is spent in trying to solve a mystery — who is the German spy in the British camp? — and it’s a solid plot. I guessed who the perpetrator was very early on, but I do not credit as a fault to Kowal’s writing. I think I’ve just seen and read far too many mysteries to the point that my first guesses are usually on point. So, yes, I figured out the mystery very early, but that meant that I could enjoy everything else about this novel all the more. I loved the small little details that were peppered in throughout. For example, the soldiers who report in to the Spirit Corps detail anything they might have seen before their death, usually providing some kind of vital intelligence about what the Germans are up to. When the Germans discover this, they begin blinding the soldiers in the Spirit Corps, a logical solution — but even better than that is the idea that’s posed about the use of mustard gas as a means to blind the soldiers and, thus, compromise their spirit-reports. I think that’s brilliant, because it perfectly blends real-world history with the magical concept.
And that is what I think makes great alternate history, especially alternate history that includes something magical or paranormal.