On December 6, 1917, a cargo ship exploded in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, after a minor collision with another ship started a fire on the deck. The blast was the largest ever human-made explosion at the time, flattening an entire district of the city. About a month earlier, one of the most horrific battles of World War I, the Battle of Passchendaele, had staggered to a close. These things really happened.
However, Laura Iven, a decorated Canadian army nurse who recently lost both of her parents, one in the Halifax explosion, was not a real person. Neither was her brother, Freddie, declared dead on the Western Front after Passchendaele; Hans Winter, the German soldier Freddie finds himself trapped with; or Penelope Shaw, a beautiful widow who lost her only son to the war. And while the First World War was certainly hellish, there were no actual devils wandering the wounded Flemish countryside.
In The Warm Hands of Ghosts, these carefully chosen fictions amplify the facts to render a gorgeously written, brutally honest portrait of the unremitting horror of trench warfare. Author Katherine Arden (The Winternight Trilogy) deliberately frames the story in apocalyptic terms, opening each chapter with a quote from the book of Revelations and portraying Laura’s resistance to her parents’ messianic belief in Christian prophecies of the End Times. Arden knows that her heroes cannot end the Great War. Their battles are smaller: Laura and Penelope travel to a Belgian field hospital seeking news of their lost loved ones, and Freddie and Winter seek to save each other. Arrayed against them are chateaux-dwelling generals playing Risk with real lives; the deliberate, protective myopia of countries coping with years of trauma; and the mysterious Faland. A Stygian violinist haunting the battlefields, Faland offers his victims a choice: Will they keep their memories, or hand them over to his safeguarding? Since humankind persists in creating an Armageddon, Faland argues that his deviltry is, in fact, merciful.
Not all the heroes succeed. The Warm Hands of Ghosts is not one of those war stories where a brave soldier snatches their comrades from the jaws of certain death before riding off into the sunset with a medal for their trouble. But each of Arden’s protagonists chooses their own fate. And as she argues in this exquisitely researched, heartbreaking book, that small revanchism is enough when the world ends.