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February 16, 2024

The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden ~ a Review

by MK French

Laura Iven was wounded and discharged from the medical corps, but as far as she knew in January 1918, her brother was still fighting in the Great War. She receives word of his death, but it doesn't make sense. Laura returns to Belgium as a volunteer at a private hospital, and hears about haunted trenches and a strange hotelier. She hopes to find out what really happened to her brother. In November 1917, Freddie Iven woke along with a wounded German soldier named Hans Winter in an overturned pillbox. The two formed an alliance to escape the pillbox, and neither wanted to kill again. They take refuge with a mysterious man with the power to make the war disappear.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

book cover of historical fiction novel The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden
February 2024; Del Rey; 978-0593128251
audio, ebook, print (336 pages); historical fiction

The two timelines outline each of their stories: Laura getting her brother's few effects that were found to be shipped to Halifax in the wake of disaster there, and Freddie waking with Hans on the battlefield. Laura maneuvers through society in Halifax as she struggles to decide if she wants to return to Europe to find out what happened to Freddie, and makes friends with two women who have some ties to the war itself. She is staying with three sisters who seem to have some facility with spirits, a nod to the spiritualism of the age and likely also the Fates themselves. She has flashbacks from her time in the war; her battlefield hospital had been right next to a munitions depot and was a target, leaving her scarred and brittle. Freddie and Hans in their story thread decide without words to help each other off the battlefield. Freddie is traumatized by the experience and the death all around them; the sensory input in these chapters is overwhelming and shows exactly what war was like.

The talk of the Fiddler and the wild men on the battlefield hint at the odd and supernatural long before either Freddie or Laura meet him. Rumors tell of the Fiddler, of the hotel bar that is found once and never again, and those people who are determined to find them again no matter the cost. It's a brief respite from the war itself, bombs and gunfire everywhere, with the chance of dying at every turn. The title comes from the belief that ghosts actually have warm hands compared to dead bodies, or if we consider the lost memories and flashbacks to be a different kind of dead. There's a bleak sense of finality in the novel, which is how many of the soldiers and medics of the period felt at the time. Between the Great War and the influenza pandemic, it was hard to see the positives of life, but people did take it where they could. Not everyone has a hopeful ending, but we do get closure for them all.

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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