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The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine ArdenUK edition4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Great War — which is what everyone called World War I before they knew there would be another one — was an event so horrific that it was absolutely unprecedented not only in warfare but in human experience. The machinery of the industrial world was put to the task of mass slaughter, and the experience tore apart not only the bodies of those killed but the minds of many who survived. Culturally it caused shock waves as well, as Katherine Arden points out, forcing people from one era (the late Victorians and early Edwardians) into a new one with very little time to adjust.

Katherine Arden is not a writer interested in repeating herself, to her infinite credit. She followed her popular folk-fantasy Winternight trilogy with her middle-grade spookshow Small Spaces, and then delivered The Warm Hands of Ghosts, a bleak, often gut-wrenching, but deeply felt stand-alone tale set in the ravaged landscape of the Belgian countryside during the latter days of the war. It is without question her best and most mature work yet.

It’s a story about maintaining connection, not just with our families and loved ones, but with our own sense of self, when the world has gone mad and everything around us is aligned towards our destruction. It’s 1918, and Laura Iven, a field nurse who has been sent back from the front to her home in Nova Scotia after sustaining injuries of her own, is a woman who has lost everything. Her younger brother Freddie has gone missing and is, naturally, presumed dead after the Battle of Passchendaele, while back home, the freak explosion of a supply ship in the Halifax harbor has killed both her parents. Now she rooms in the stately home of a trio of wealthy sisters, elderly spinsters with a fondness for seances.

One day Laura receives an unexpected package, but not from the Red Cross. It contains her brother’s tattered uniform and some personal effects, and also his complete set of dog tags. This is strange, because if a soldier is killed in action, one tag is returned to his family while the other is left with his body. There is no official telegram confirming Freddie’s death. But there is a cryptic, unsigned postcard indicating Freddie may very well be alive somewhere. This is all it takes to convince Laura to go back to the worst place in the world.

We know that Freddie is alive. The story alternates between Laura’s search for Freddie, and his own survival ordeal several months prior, towards the end of 1917. Trapped beneath a demolished pillbox with a German soldier, Hans Winter, with whom he quickly bonds, the two men eventually dig their way out, where they soon encounter an enigmatic figure calling himself Faland. Is he the devil, or some kind of trickster god? Faland is a French name derived from a Latin root word meaning “false.” But what Faland promises the lost soldiers of the Western Front feels all too real and desirable: peace and safety in exchange for their memories, which Faland uses to power his music. Winter manages to resist these charms, but Freddie proves all too susceptible.

Arden is able to make her fantasy elements feel completely organic because her chosen historical setting is already one in which a great many people felt as if the veil between life and death was very thin. Spiritualism had been popular for decades. Victorians widely believed they could speak to their dead loved ones, and World War I soldiers commonly shared stories about the ghosts and wild men (deserters who had gone insane and apparently feral) of No Man’s Land, the lifeless stretch of ground that separated one army’s trenches from the other’s. Into this environment, Arden introduces Faland and his hotel, which seems to obey no physical laws and whose endless doors open into the past and future.

Arden’s writing is sublime. She conveys the apocalyptic horror of the Great War without flinching. She gives all of her characters such grounded humanity that however deep their own personal tragedies may be, the emotions are never cloying or contrived. At no time does Laura and Freddie’s search for each other ever collapse into pathos. Even Faland can’t be interpreted in simplistic good-or-evil terms. Who could blame anyone, especially on the Western Front, for embracing his offer? One thing war teaches us today, and that Arden conveys so eloquently, is that not everyone who lives through it is necessarily a survivor. To survive at all, we have to draw strength from each other and do it together.