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eARC Review: The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden



Release date:  13 February 2024 US/7 March 2024 UK

Rating:  4/5

Book boxes/SE’s:  Goldsboro Prem1er March, OwlCrate March Adult, Waterstones Exclusive, Barnes & Noble Exclusive

Synopsis:  During the Great War, a combat nurse searches for her brother, believed dead in the trenches despite eerie signs that suggest otherwise, in this hauntingly beautiful historical novel with a speculative twist, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Bear and the Nightingale.


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.

 

Review


I would like to preface this review with some clarification.  The Warm Hands of Ghosts only loosely resembles fantasy.  Loosely.  I would more accurately categorize it as paranormal with a hint of magical realism.  The paranormal elements don’t factor into the story until about 30-40 percent of the way into the narrative, and even then, many are subtle enough to be chalked up to hallucinations.  On the other hand, for a low fantasy set during a war, I’ll have to give props to Arden for keeping my attention.  I typically like my fantasy high, and I don’t follow war dramas well.  Arden manages to make a war story entrancing while delicately weaving the supernatural into the narrative.  If you’ve missed Arden since The Nightingale Trilogy, The Warm Hands of Ghosts will definitely satiate your appetite.


Character-driven stories always make the best stories.  Arden’s characters have such depth and nuance, I felt a magnetic pull to every one of them.  The only successful way to tell a war story, in my opinion, is to write compelling characters. Arden has definitely mastered character development here.  Laura, a sulky, embittered and heartbroken nurse pushes through pain and grief in order to help others.  Mary and Pen, though side characters, could easily be mains.  Freddie and Winter work together and show the human aspect of the trenches, much like the events of Joyeux Noël, which I highly recommend readers watch for a bit of context on the exasperating cost of WWI and how it took such a toll on the humans fighting, they began to refuse to do so.  One could also watch Wonder Woman; I feel there are some similarities with Diana’s quest to find Ares and stop the killing and Arden’s characters striving to find each other on the battlefield.


I only had a couple of drawbacks for this one.  The first would be the romantic relationships in the book; they felt forced in terms of the characters’ attraction to one another, which might have been more compelling if they had been platonic, as the sense of obligation to one another as members of humanity in general instead of someone for whom there was a more visceral attraction would have made for a more inspiring story.  I haven’t seen a lot of characters who stay connected because a sense of non-sexual loyalty lately, and literature could really use more of those.  The book market right now is highly driven by romance stories, so I can see why that would be a narrative choice.  I just wish maybe there would be more great books with great storytelling that show books can be good even if they aren’t romances.  For this one, in both instances, the romance felt like an afterthought.


Additionally, the author’s note at the end makes a point of explaining and showcasing the amount of work and research on World War I Arden underwent while crafting this story.  The effort really shows.  I have a nurse in the family, and all of the dialogue and habits were familiar to me.  What I found lacking, however, was the misinterpretation and misuse of Scripture references, especially the verses from Revelation.  A bit of eschatological research would have really tied a nice bow of complementation with the accuracy of the war story.  I do appreciate the nuances of the supernatural character(s) and the subtle references to the musical aspect of the violinist hotelier (I’m being deliberately vague so as not to spoil for those who have not read the book).  


Overall, I give it a 4-star rating.   Well crafted story overall, but some minor stuff that really detracted from how the book could really shine as literature.


My thanks to Netgalley for the eARC, for which I willingly give my own, honest opinion.


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2 Comments


I couldn’t agree with you more on the sore lack of stories that feature deep platonic friendship. Friendship is cuts me right to the core in terms of emotional impact.

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Yes, indeed. I balled like a baby when I watched Raya and the Last Dragon. Friendship and loyalty are so impactful to me.

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