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Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force.
Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the Corps can pass instant information about troop movements to military intelligence.
Ginger and her fellow mediums contribute a great deal to the war efforts, so long as they pass the information through appropriate channels. While Ben is away at the front, Ginger discovers the presence of a traitor. Without the presence of her fiance to validate her findings, the top brass thinks she’s just imagining things. Even worse, it is clear that the Spirit Corps is now being directly targeted by the German war effort. Left to her own devices, Ginger has to find out how the Germans are targeting the Spirit Corps and stop them. This is a difficult and dangerous task for a woman of that era, but this time both the spirit and the flesh are willing…
A war story, a ghost story, a love story; Ghost Talkers is all three. It is also a mystery, and one with a decidedly intersectional feminist bent. There is much to explore here in this rich tale of intrigue, murder, romance, and betrayal set in WWI France.
In the world of Ghost Talkers, spirits do walk the Earth and mediums have the ability to commune with them. The British Army has assembled its own force of mediums, known as the Spirit Corps, to collect intel from the spirits of recently departed soldiers. Our heroine, Ginger, is one such medium who plays a crucial part in gleaning information of vital importance to the war effort.
Early on in the story a series of suspicious deaths ignites the mystery at its core. Worse, the deaths make it clear that the German side has become aware of the British Spirit Corps and is now engaging in strategies and tactics to neutralize Britain’s efforts. When her efforts to make the British higher-ups aware of the betrayal fail, it’s up to Ginger and her gang to find out who is behind the deaths and stop the German mole. The stakes are high as Ginger engages in a race against time to save not the only the Spirit Corps, but the British Front itself.
And this is hard to accomplish in 1916. Here is a group of women running up against the institutionalized prejudices of their time. Ginger & Co. are very capable and do not shy from the hard sacrifices and dangerous situations the story demands of them. But their efforts are all the more felt for how hard it is to battle the oppression they face.
In fact, the book makes a very cognizant effort to be aware of such injustices, and there is representation from many facets. Ginger recognizes the prejudice she faces as a woman, but she also sees the racism her colleague, and fellow medium, Helen faces for being a woman of color. Helen is actually by far the stronger and superior medium, but her efforts go unacknowledged by her commanding officers. The novel sees this and examines it.
Each member of Ginger’s cohort is intricately and lovingly painted. The author has a gift for sharing the sense of a person in the small details of their character. You truly sense them as real people that you come to care about deeply in such a short period of time. There is much to love about each, but I appreciated the many different types of strength in the female characters. Not everyone is going to be that (dreaded) archetypal Strong Female Character and it is refreshing to see here.
As much as it is mystery, and heart-pounding action, and a story with strong themes of social justice, it is also very much a story of war. Robinette Kowal does not shy from the death count. War is cruel. And we do not get to escape its repercussions. The heart of this story is the human cost, especially View Spoiler »the loss of Ben « Hide Spoiler. This book did what historical fiction, for me, does best: it humanizes history and makes it real in a way that reading mere facts or opinions in a text cannot.
And at the heart of the heart was the story’s romance. Ginger and Ben have such an achingly sweet relationship. Do you like witty banter and charming, caring, supportive gentleman? Of course you do. I did not even realize that the major overarching plot point (for me) was not mentioned in the publisher’s synopsis so I am going to put this under spoilersView Spoiler »Ben dies early on in the book. The scenes shared between Ben and Ginger throughout most of the story are between Ginger and Ben’s spirit. He can’t move on to the next plane while the mystery of his killer remains unsolved. It is so achingly bittersweet to fall in love with these characters and their relationship already knowing that one of them is gone. As soon as Ginger finds the answers, Ben will be well and truly gone forever. Both are aware that even the time they have now, with Ben as a ghost, is gift in ways because they are slowly able to come to terms and say goodbye. But perhaps sometimes it is easier to rip the band-aid off in one go. « Hide Spoiler This book will especially speak to anyone who has ever fought so hard for a relationship and for a person they loved unspeakably much, View Spoiler »but who they were ultimately unable to keep. « Hide Spoiler
I will share that this book made me cry, which is a rare feat. Perhaps it’s just that I recently read a book that cracked my heart right open and made me sob buckets. Perhaps that book so thoroughly shook me that I’m the sort of reader who cries now. Perhaps. But bittersweet is the world I’m ultimately left with when I think of the overall impression of Ghost Talkers. There is victory, but at great cost.
The ending might be just a little too neat and too pat, but I can forgive it. Ginger certainly earns, and lord knows there are enough trials in the real world that I am happy to see even fictional characters eke out any happiness they can get. This is a wonderful story of heartbreak, sacrifice, and humanity. If you like historical and you like a touch of the paranormal with a heavy helping of heartache this is not one to be missed.