Book Review : The Warm Hands of Ghosts

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The Warm Hands of GhostsThe Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden
Published by Del Rey on February 13, 2024
Genres: Fantasy & Magic, Historical
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Source: NetGalley

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, she 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. Soon after arriving, she 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 men 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.

Every now and then a book comes along that makes you feel like you’re a better person for reading it—The Warm Hands of Ghosts is undoubtedly one of those books. The Warm Hands of Ghosts details a time, World War I, which is so often lost in the shadow of what came next. Author Katherine Arden lovingly and unapologetically places that time period out in the sun and shows it as it is, devastating, all-consuming, and hungry. She does not try to sugar coat a time that many thought was the end of the world or to tie it up in a neat ribbon of hope at the end, but lets the pain and uncertainty flow unchecked. It feels heartbreakingly real and it is clear the author carried out a massive amount of research in order to do justice to the time period and the people who suffered in it.


“‘Waiting for something to happen?’ Laura asked Lucretia as they walked.

‘Well, yes,’ said Lucretia. ‘To you, you know. All your ghosts. You’re tailing them like penitent-beads. Your family. Your patients. Not dear Freddie, of course. Because he’s not dead.’

Laura said nothing.”


Arden’s characters, two siblings, Laura and Wilfred “Freddie” Iven are painfully lifelike characters in extraordinary times. Laura is a tough, far too experienced combat nurse who was permanently injured in the line of duty and honorably discharged. Her brother, Freddie, is a bleeding heart artist who is on the front lines of the war. Both have seen far too much of the earth shattering war already, but when Laura is sent her brother’s uniform and dog tags along with a note that he’s missing and presumed dead, she sets out to find the truth of his fate—for how could the military send home dog tags and a uniform of a missing man? As she gets closer to the truth, she realizes there is much worse than the physical agony of death on and off the battlefield. (Content warning: this novel contains graphic descriptions of men dying from various wounds throughout the novel. There are also depictions of amputations, the loss of sanity, and murder.)


I was immediately ensnared by the story, as Arden effortlessly depicts the two characters in different time frames, Laura in 1918 at home in Halifax, Canada trying to find purpose after her discharge, and Freddie in 1917 finding himself trapped in an overturned pillbox. The juxtaposition of these two very different, but similar hells, which were both suffocating in their own ways, made it impossible not to care about the siblings. I was at once invested to find out what happened to Freddie and pained the more I learned of his past struggles and watched Laura trying to piece together the truth of his fate.


“‘Lord,’ the second doctor said finally.

‘Think all the girls who went to war came back like that?’ Cut up, incorrigible?'”


Laura, though not always likable with her brusqueness and pragmatism, was an incredibly sympathetic character to me. Her matter-of-factness and cynicism probably should have conflicted with her utter devotion to her brother, but instead they form the basis of a very three dimensional woman desperately trying to hold on to not only those she loves, but also, herself. I wonder how anyone could find this character anything but moving, as she is a determined, self-made career woman in survival mode living in a world on the cusp of ruin. It is clear that Laura isn’t sure where she belongs in this world if not for her role as an older sister or her job as a nurse. I admired her for her resolution to move forward in the face of impossible odds and for her ability to hang on to her reason in a world very much without it.


Side characters Winter, a German soldier and unlikely ally of Freddie, and Pim, a grieving widow who also lost her son in the war, both search for their own answers in different ways. I found Pim to be a particularly poignant character study of grief and will undoubtedly always think of her when I think of this novel. Arden does a fantastic job of demonstrating the different ways in which people can splinter in the face of overwhelming adversity and loss. Her depictions are somehow understated, but managed to effortlessly sear the imagery of war and despair into my head. The emotions she conveys with such few words are palpable and heart wrenching.


“No poet, living or dead could have imagined this place, real upon earth, and their very language was insufficient to describe it.”


To be honest, I found The Warm Hands of Ghost to be a difficult read, which it should be, given the subject matter of war and loss. In fact, it took me almost a month to complete the novel, despite truly wanting to know all of its mysteries and the fate of the characters. The longer reading time had more to do with me and less to do with the novel. However, it does take about 45% of the book for the setup to end and the supernatural stuff to really start coming into play—something that may feel slow to readers who are really keen to get to those parts of the story or aren’t huge fans of plain historical fiction. In fact, it took so long for the supernatural elements to become a major part of the plot that it felt a bit jarring for me when they actually started occurring. It felt like I had been reading a historical fiction novel, with a few grieving widows turning to seances to cope with their loss on the side for spice, so it was a bit shocking when ghosts, who I thought had been mere symptoms of PTSD started playing a role beyond trauma, and the devil started playing a tune to make soldiers dance. It was almost like reading two different books in one.


Though it took me some time to get used to the novel pivoting from its depressing, brutal realism into the realm of the otherworldly, I did eventually get accustomed to it. Admittedly, other parts of The Warm Hands of Ghosts remained uncomfortable, as it’s inescapably apparent that the atrocities of humanity being committed in this novel are eerily similar to the times we are living in today. That makes The Warm Hands of Ghosts feel disquieting—less like a fictional tale of the past and more like a cautionary tale of what happens when humanity loses the pieces of itself that make it, well, human. It’s truly a testament to Arden’s writing that readers are unable to escape the implications of the past repeating itself and the connections to all of the historical events occurring in our own lifetimes. 


“‘You hate the war as much as me.’

Faland drew the cork on a new bottle and raised it in a toast. ‘Yes, I hate it, clever boy. It’s a hell with no master, that men made themselves.’ He drank, said meditatively, ‘Appetite without judgment: torment by numbers and entirely mindless. Of course I hate it.'”


Ultimately, The Warm Hands of Ghosts is truly unlike anything I’ve read, combining historical fiction and the supernatural in an unforgettable homage to grief, humanity, and the total devastation of war. The novel manages to examine the price one is willing to pay in order to be okay, to highlight a time period of inescapable uncertainty, and begs the question of what truly makes a person a person. If you don’t mind darker stories and love complex characters who don’t make the “right” decisions, I highly recommend you pick up The Warm Hands of Ghosts.



Book Review : The Warm Hands of Ghosts - Blogging with Dragons

Posted January 12, 2024 in ARCS, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

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