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What I’m reading: Ghost Stories

Ghost Talkers (2016) / Mary Robinette Kowal (Challenge book: Women of Genre Fiction)

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day (2017) / Seanan McGuire

Among Others (2012) / Jo Walton (Challenge book: Women of Genre Fiction, Beat the Backlist)

Why do I do this to myself? This was the week of sobbing on the bus. I loved them, all three, I did, but it occurs to me in hindsight that I should perhaps not have read them back-to-back.

I am fascinated with all things WWI; I adore fantastical alternate history; I am working on actively reading new women authors; this book got a lot of buzz and many positive reviews last year. It was more or less inevitable that I was going to read Ghost Talkers. But I approached it with some trepidation. The premise: England has developed a method by which the ghosts of soldiers killed in action are summoned to a particular location to give a “final report” to trained psychic mediums before continuing on to their destined afterlife. The German high command has sussed out that this is happening and is trying to learn where the mediums are operating to launch an attack on the site; they’re also committing such atrocities as the bombing of barracks full of sleeping soldiers to “flood” the mediums with useless intel.

Because it is 1916, and the mediums are all women, and many of them women of color and the working class, and because their work is highly classified and no one much knows that the women of the Spirit Corps are anything but morale-boosting makers of tea and chauffeurs of mid-ranking officers and attenders of society parties and general pretty faces around HQ, they get little respect and less appreciation from the high command or the warm-blooded troops, but the ghost soldiers passing through have tremendous gratitude for their work. One of the things that keeps lead medium Ginger Stuyvesant going is that her fiancé, intelligence officer Captain Benjamin Hartford, does respect her, and her work, and understand the value of it, perhaps better than anyone else.

Until the day Ben walks into the mediums’ circle to report that he’s been murdered.

Being inside Ginger’s head as she tries to keep herself together while watching and helping Ben fight to keep himself together long enough to solve his own murder and complete his final report was… very hard. Trying to assess this book objectively, for someone who isn’t, well, me, with my particular take on the subject of dead fiancés, is also hard. It is, all simultaneously, a moving, sweet, sad love story and a fascinating murder mystery and a respectful, meticulously researched war story, and particularly poignant in this hundredth anniversary year of the Great War. Beautiful book and strongly recommended, but recommended with a big cautious caveat to widows of soldiers.

Jenna is the opposite of Ginger: she’s a ghost who talks to living people. Jenna died far too young and a long time ago, and she’s just trying to get to the end of her allotted time on this earth, and she hurries it along by giving time back to the living; she works as a suicide prevention hotline counselor. Ghosts more typically take time from living people, stealing breaths, stealing seconds, to extend their own desperate grip on something resembling life. But certain people with access to certain magics can also steal time from ghosts, trapping them in mirrors and bleeding them like sentient, suffering fountains of youth.

When Jenna wakes up one day to find that she’s the last ghost in New York, she realizes something is terribly wrong, and has been wrong for a while, and she’s been too wrapped up in her own quiet desperation to realize it. Forging an uneasy partnership with a witch, knowing how dangerous it is, she follows the mystery home to Kentucky and her own history and destiny.

I wrote about the previous installation in Seanan McGuire’s current run of contemporary fairy tales a few months ago, and I have the next one out in June on hold; I’m really enjoying these short, deeply emotional, dreamlike dark fantasies, but they will make you ugly-cry.

And then, Among Others.

I mentioned in my review of Invisible Planets that I was going to come back to the idea of a literary quality in SFF, of SFF as self-aware and self-referential within a literary tradition, because this book is all about that.

This is a story about a girl on the cusp of womanhood, a twin trying to find a way to go on after the death of her sister, a young woman struggling with a different kind of loss in an irreconcilable breach with her mother, a dweller in the land of fantasy who finds solace and companionship and hope in escape into science fiction. Mori is fifteen in 1979 in rural England, in boarding school being supported by her newly un-estranged father after leaving Wales and her mother’s family. She still sees fairies sometimes, and there is still magic, though it’s harder to access and she’s deeply uncertain and conflicted about what do do with it, and her mother still terrifies her, and her sister still haunts her.

It’s the book club at the little public library in town that saves her that year, the book club and the boy she meets through it and his willingness to believe in her that ultimately lets her go back to Wales to finish the work she and Mor started, and to finally let Mor go. It’s Tolkien and LeGuin and Tiptree, Heinlein and T.S. Elliot in the same breath, snarking on Stephen Donaldson and re-reading Zelazny (as one does, because with Zelazny it’s either “wtf? no” or love and re-read forever, John taught me that) arguing over Philip K. Dick and bonding with her father over Larry Niven, and the pure weirdness of Thomas Hardy in one hand and Douglas Adams in the other.

It’s a prayer of thanks for the books that got us through high school and other dark times in our lives, the books we chose for ourselves and the ones we never would have that surprised us, and the ones that made us angry and forced us to articulate what we were angry about. It’s absolutely impossible to read if you don’t have a sense of the genre and its history, and impossible to put down if you do. It’s about how stories keep us going when life is just too shitty to be tolerated, and somehow, with the space of breath and rest that escapism gives us, and the support of a community of shared storytellers and dreamers, we keep putting one foot in front of the other, and we carry ourselves out of the dark.

“If you love books enough, books will love you back.”

Published in intersections


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