The Warm Hands of Ghosts

This was the first Katherine Arden work I've read. Nothing in The Bear and the Nightingale trilogy appealed to me, so I was happy to finally have the opportunity to sample one of her novels. Not sure what it was, but something in the press release and the cover blurb of The Warm Hands of Ghosts piqued my curiosity and made me want to read it.

I'm glad I elected to do so, for the author's atmospheric prose made for an interesting and touching reading experience.

Here's the blurb:

January 1918. Laura Iven was a revered field nurse until she was wounded and discharged from the medical corps, leaving behind a brother still fighting in Flanders. Now home in Halifax, Canada, Laura receives word of Freddie’s death in combat, along with his personal effects—but something doesn’t make sense. Determined to uncover the truth, Laura returns to Belgium as a volunteer at a private hospital, where she soon hears whispers about haunted trenches and a strange hotelier whose wine gives soldiers the gift of oblivion. Could Freddie have escaped the battlefield, only to fall prey to something—or someone—else?

November 1917. Freddie Iven awakens after an explosion to find himself trapped in an overturned pillbox with a wounded enemy soldier, a German by the name of Hans Winter. Against all odds, the two form an alliance and succeed in clawing their way out. Unable to bear the thought of returning to the killing fields, especially on opposite sides, they take refuge with a mysterious man who seems to have the power to make the hellscape of the trenches disappear.

As shells rain down on Flanders and ghosts move among those yet living, Laura’s and Freddie’s deepest traumas are reawakened. Now they must decide whether their world is worth salvaging—or better left behind entirely.

The first World War serves as the backdrop for this story and Arden did an incredible job setting the tone for how all-encompassing the conflict was for everyone involved. There is a minutiae of historical details that allow readers to go back in time and relive one of mankind's darkest hour. That more than anything else is what made The Warm Hands of Ghosts such an interesting read. From the Halifax Explosion and its aftermath in Canada to the horrible day-to-day existence of living in and around the Passchendaele area and experiencing all the atrocities associated with waging a war of attrition, the author truly captured the mood and created an arresting imagery.

As the blurb implies, the tale is told from two perspectives. A decorated field nurse and honorable discharge, Laura returned home to Nova Scotia only to lose both her parents in the Halifax Explosion. As she tries as best she can to put her life back together, she receives word of her brother's death. The box sent from Flanders contains his personal effects, yet no telegram was sent ahead to inform the family of a soldier's death. Oddly enough, the box also contains both of Freddie's identity tags. The red one is usually sent home, but the green one stays with the body. As if this wasn't mysterious enough, ghosts tell her that her brother is alive and she must find him. Given how much she has suffered, it's impossible not to feel for Laura. Determined to uncover the truth, even though she's convinced that Freddie is dead, she journeys back to Belgium to investigate and discover what really happened. The second perspective is that of Freddie, who regains consciousness in the dark, trapped beneath a pillbox and terrified of dying alone. His relationship with the German soldier is moving and heartbreaking and I wish it could have lasted longer before they get separated. The bond forged between Freddie and Hans Winter will prove to be stronger than anyone expected. The supporting cast is made up of a few disparate characters that each leave their mark on the tale and without whom The Warm Hands of Ghosts would have been a much less memorable read. Pim Shaw, who sails to Europe with Laura following her son's death in the war, plays a major role in the resolution of this book. Faland, the peculiar fiddler who invites soldiers and gives them wine that makes them forget the savagery of the conflict, was an interesting addition to the tale, even if I felt that too much time was spent around him. He is important, no question, yet Freddie's time at the hotel was a bit overdone and hurt the momentum of the novel. Finally, Doctor Jones, a no-nonsense American physician, gave another dimension to Laura's storyline, one that I didn't realize she needed until it happened.

In terms of pace, The Warm Hands of Ghosts is a slow burn in every sense of the expression. This is not a problem per se, as it's obvious that the various storylines need to unfold slowly and gradually, or else lose the emotional impact Katherine Arden intended for them. Still, as mentioned, Faland and Freddie's plotline could have been shorter. In my opinion, it dragged more than a little, especially once we learn what the fiddler is truly after. Other than that, regardless of how slow-paced the book turned out to be, rhythm was never an issue for me.

No matter how bleak the war, the theme of sibling love, poignant and powerful, is at the heart of the tale that is The Warm Hands of Ghosts. So is hope. Though the story is dark and tragic for the most part, Arden reminds us that no matter how broken one's existence can become, love can somehow grow and flourish in the most horrible of circumstances.

Achingly beautiful, that's what The Warm Hands of Ghosts is.

The final verdict: 8/10

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2 commentaires:

DontDriveAngry said...

Appreciate the review! I was surprised to be a fan of her Winternight Trilogy- I didn't know that the marketing around it seemed to be geared towards a YA/Modern Fantasy audience like some of her other works, and I was more interested in her adaptation of Russian myth/folklore- Turns out I really enjoyed her writing. This one looks great.

Patrick said...

Don't know how it compares to her first trilogy, but I'm glad I read this one! =)