Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers is a book that crosses genres with impudence and verve. It's a World War I historical romance, with a spunky red-headed heroine and a dashing military officer. It's a wartime spy thriller, with traitors and murders and secret codes. And it's a historical fantasy in which the British make use of a distinctly paranormal source of intelligence - the ghosts of soldiers killed in combat.
In Kowal's slightly alternate world, mediums are real, and the war effort has recruited them to interview the souls of those lost in battle for information about enemy weapon placements, troop movements, anything the revenant remembers about the circumstances of his death. And in turn, the mediums record their final messages for those they leave behind.
Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums of the "London branch" of the Spirit Corps - so named to hide its true location in Le Havre - and her fiancé, Ben Harford, is an officer in British Intelligence. She, like all the other mediums, spends her days talking to the dead, reliving their last moments with them, and then dismissing them to the next plane. And then everything changes, when one of the ghosts reporting in is an officer she knows, stationed in Le Havre, who tells her that he thinks he was murdered - and the last thing he remembers is overhearing is a discussion between two spies that could mean the Germans are planning on targeting the Spirit Corps.
What follows is a fast-paced story of spy vs. spy as Ginger hunts clues to the identity of the spies across war-torn France. There are plenty of red herrings and false leads, dead ends and desperate plots. And of course, a love story.
What gives the narrative extra depth is Kowal's focus on the women (the mediums employed by the war department are mostly women, but the war also relied on the services of nurses, female couriers and other support personnel) and people of colour who were part of the war but are so rarely seen in fictional accounts of The Great War.
Sexism abounds. When Ginger attends a staff meeting as the acting head of the Spirit Corps, she's asked to make coffee. Her reports on the murder and subsequent related events are downplayed because she is a woman. The work that the mediums do - soul-wrenching and potentially deadly should the medium fail to disengage from the departing ghost - is dismissed as "sitting around," in a way that recollects the minimalising of the value of so much women's work. Not even Ginger's beloved Ben, who has learned to acknowledge her value and strength, is completely free of overprotectiveness disguised as gallantry.
Racism abounds as well. The strongest and most experienced medium is Helen, a woman of colour - but not only is she unable to take her natural position as leader of of Spirit Corps, she and other black mediums can't even fraternise with their white colleagues. At the same time, skilled and experienced soldiers from the Indian colonies are sidelined as drivers, and are excluded from the conditioning given to all white soldiers that ensures that they will report after death - then be mercifully dismissed, rather than left to wander the fields they died in.
Kowal's narrative moves swiftly, capturing both the horrors of war (she makes effective use of Rupert Brooke's war poems) and the "whistling in the dark" kind of humour so often found side by side with death and the constant pressure of being in a war zone. In a book which deals so powerfully with darkness, separation, sacrifice and death, she reminds us that there is also love and courage, and that after the dead have passed, life goes on.