“The Warm Hands of Ghosts” Book Review: It’s More Than Just Historical Fiction

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You may think you know what you’re reading when you pick up The Warm Hands of Ghosts, but once you’ve settled into the story, Katherine Arden flips your expectations to show you something different, something bigger than the story.

The book is straightforward. It’s set in 1918 during World War I. Laura Iven is a revered field nurse discharged from the medical corps after being wounded. She is sent home to Canada, leaving her brother Freddie fighting in Flanders, Belgium.

Laura receives word of Freddie’s death, but things don’t add up. She is determined to uncover the truth and returns to Belgium to volunteer at a private hospital. There, she learns about haunted trenches and a strange man whose wine helps soldiers forget the war.

The Warm Hands of Ghosts is told from the perspective of Laura and her brother. Early on, we learn that Freddie survives an explosion in a pillbox with Hans Winter, a wounded enemy soldier from Germany. They claw their way out and take refuge with a mysterious man who seems to have the power to make their most horrific memories disappear.

Laura and Freddie try to find their way to each other, but their deepest traumas are reawakened, and more significant forces try to keep them apart.


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War and fantasy may seem disparate, but it is not the case. According to Arden, nearly every memoir of the war mentions ghostly encounters. A figure called the Angel of Mons was reportedly seen in the sky from the trenches in Belgium during World War I. Part of the author’s inspiration is that J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, based his vision of Mordor on his experiences in the same war.

Arden brings fantasy elements to The Warm Hands of Ghosts to the almost unbelievable reality of World War I. What makes the novel special is that it is more than that.

The author flips the book on its head when you think you’ve figured out what the book’s about. Arden uses the war and the story of the Ivens to explore more prominent themes such as grief, trauma, and love. The result is a fascinating and well-told story that picks up its pace when the pieces fall into place. It helps that the characters, including the supporting ones, are likable and well-fleshed out. Penelope Shaw is my favorite.

It’s easy for a skilled writer to tell a straightforward story about the struggles of a nurse and her missing brother, but it takes immense talent to dig deeper and ask bigger and more profound questions.

You are in good (and warm) hands with Arden, who also wrote the Winternight trilogy, all three of which were nominated for Best Fantasy Novel on Goodreads. The books have also been nominated for the Hugo and Locus Awards, recognizing the best in science fiction, fantasy, and horror literature. Her Small Spaces series, a collection of middle-grade horror books, has been recommended twice to me.

Arden’s The Warm Hands of Ghosts is the perfect read for fans of historical fiction. The fact that it’s set in World War I is reason enough to read since it receives less attention than the second global conflict. But the idea that it explores personal and universal themes makes this even more special.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below!

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