I have been aware of Mary Robinette Kowal for some time now. Several of my favorite authors sing her praises regularly, John Scalzi in particular springs to mind as I write this. Last year Kowal went on a book tour with Marie Brennan. Brennan writes the delightful Lady Trent Memoirs series, of which I am a fan, so it was exciting to be able to attend a signing of hers for the first time. As Kowal was coming too, it seemed time to finally pick up one of her books.
Mary Robinette Kowal has written a lot of short science fiction but most recently is known for her Glamourist Histories series of novels. When I asked at the bookstore what book of hers I should get to start with, they suggested the first in the Glamourist series,”Shades of Milk and Honey”. The Glamourist Histories is a re-imagining of the Regency Era in which magic, referred to as glamour, exists. Kowal writes as if she were a contemporary of Jane Austen with the twist of this lovely magic system that revolves almost exclusively around illusions. Memory recalls it was a Thursday I picked up the book. The following Saturday was the author event and I had already finished the book. “Shades of Milk and Honey” was devoured in two days because I could not put it down. At the event I had to control my fan girl when I met Kowal, her writing lived up to the hype. This event was for the last book in the series and instead of reading from it, she read from the new novel she was currently writing at the time, “Ghost Talkers”. I was hooked and then had to wait over a year to get a finished copy in hand! Fortunately I still had books 2-5 of the Glamourist series to keep me occupied for part of that time.
Though the book was released this August, I patiently waited for my daughters to be able to give it to me for my October birthday. That day, “Ghost Talkers” was cracked open and the devouring began. This time Kowal has re-imagined what might have happened during World War I if the Spiritualism that was so popular at the time were actually true and sensitive people, mediums, could truly communicate with the dead.
In “Ghost Talkers” the vast majority of people believe the Spirit Corps are women who volunteer their time to sit and chat with service men, serve them tea, and generally help keep the men connected with polite society while they face the horrors of war in the trenches. This is based on the hospitality rooms that were set up in WWI, as it was recognized that these smalls things helped with the soldiers’ emotional health. To a very select few, the true purpose of the Spirit Corp is known, to communicate with soldiers immediately after death to learn any important details the soldier can convey such as gun emplacements, troop movements, anything to give the Allies an edge in the war. Upon death, soldiers’ souls come to the secret location where mediums and their supporting circles take reports. After giving their report, their duty is fulfilled and the souls disappear into the golden light.
Ginger Stuyvesant is an American heiress, medium, and member of the Spirit Corps. Despite being the de-facto head of the organization, Ginger, being female and American, struggles with the commanding officers who oversee the Spirit Corp. Far more likely to listen to her fiance, British intelligence officer Cpt. Benjamin Harford, they are dismissive of Ginger due to her gender and lack of title. This creates more than the usual problems when Ginger begins to suspect that Germans have become aware of the true nature of the Spirit Corp while Ben is away at the front. With the Spirit Corp being targeted, it is a race to find out who is leaking information to the Germans.
In “Ghost Talkers, the roles of the overlooked in WWI, women and people of color, are brought front and center giving a voice to those invaluable people who supported the war effort just as much as soldiers on the front lines. It is a woman of color, the powerful medium Helen that figured out how to have soldier’s spirits report in after death. Though she is the creator and therefore ideal person to lead the Spirit Corp her color keeps her out of the position. Cpl. Patel is an Indian serviceman disgruntled at not being able to serve on the front lines but determined to do his duty, even if he is reduced to being a driver. At the climax of the story these people and more come together to make sure the traitor is captured and their worth becomes recognized by the top brass.
Beyond the action and adventure of spies and intrigue is the bittersweet love story of Ginger and Ben. Both mediums and dedicated to the war effort in different ways, working together and looking forward to when they can finally be married. Her abilities and his spycraft make them a powerful couple. Sadly fate does not have their happily ever after in mind as the Germans begin stepping up their initiative against the Spirit Corp.
Kowal spins an excellent tale by keeping you guessing who the traitor is and building suspense as the book races to conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent in Kowal’s version of the Great War and look forward to whatever she comes up with next.