The Warm Hands of Ghosts

A Novel



About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • 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 author of The Bear and the Nightingale.

“A wonderful clash of fire and ice—a book you won’t want to let go of.”—Diana Gabaldon, author of Outlander

“Spectacular—a tour de force, wonderful and deep and haunting.”—Naomi Novik, author of A Deadly Education

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, Laura 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, where she soon 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 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.
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Praise for The Warm Hands of Ghosts

“A spectacular tour de force by one of my favorite authors, so wonderful and deep and haunting that you might well imagine it required a Faustian bargain of its own—I love this book so much and want everyone to read it!”—Naomi Novik, author of A Deadly Education

“Katherine Arden’s effortless blend of history and folklore is sure to entrance again with this stunning foray into the twentieth century, where ghosts walk, dreams blunt trauma, and myth becomes real.”—Kate Quinn, author of The Diamond Eye

“Darkly beautiful and deeply humane, this is a story of love that reaches across borders and across oceans, and even penetrates the veil of death. It will stir your heart and settle into your bones.”—Ava Reid, author of A Study in Drowning

The Warm Hands of Ghosts is a miraculously warm fusion of the mud and bloody horror of war with the unquenchable power of love and the bond formed at the limits of human endurance. It’s a magical and marvelous book.”—Nicola Griffith, author of Menewood

“Absolutely incredible—I had chills all through reading it.”—Shannon Chakraborty, author of The City of Brass

“Katherine Arden isn’t writing about World War I, she’s writing from World War I—the diction, the madness, the desperation. But the hope, too—and maybe even a devil grinning at us from the trenches.”—Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians

“From the brutal trenches of World War I comes a vivid story of grief and love that feels not only timeless, but timely. This exquisite novel took me over like a haunting, and Arden’s eerie, exacting prose followed me long after I closed the cover. It’s one of the best historical fantasies I’ve ever read.”—Emma Törzs

“A marvelous novel, visionary, imaginative, and brilliantly written.”—Anthony Horowitz, author of Magpie Murders

“Arden’s haunting novel is at once immersive and timeless, an ode to the enduring power of memory.”—Vaishnavi Patel, author of Kaikeyi

“A page-turner of the highest order . . . a masterpiece of historical realism seamlessly blended with the supernatural that delivers spine-tingling heroism as well as a searing study of war’s cruelties and the necessity of remembrance . . . a haunting, fantastic read!”—Helene Wecker, author of The Golem and the Jinni

“Arden’s World War I setting is visceral, with real-world horrors that make warm-handed ghosts and seductive devils comforting in comparison. The touch of fantasy enhances the uncanny, shifting realities of a world in turmoil.”Library Journal (starred review)

“Through resonant prose, [Arden] literalizes the apocalyptic qualities of WWI while dwelling in moral complexity and delivering vibrant, fully fleshed-out characters. The interwoven supernatural elements lend the historical details greater weight. The result is a powerful page-turner.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Set on and off the battlefields of Belgium in the final year of World War I, this novel adds a supernatural touch to its vividly realized historical details.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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The Warm Hands of Ghosts

The Beast from the Sea

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canadian Maritimes

January 1918

Freddie’s clothes came to Veith Street instead of Blackthorn House, and the telegram that ought to have preceded them didn’t reach Laura at all. She wasn’t surprised. Nothing had worked properly, not since December.

December 6, to be exact. In the morning. When the Mont Blanc had steamed into Halifax Harbor, oil on deck and high explosive in her hold. She’d struck a freighter, they said, and the oil caught fire. Harbor crews were trying to put it out when the flames found the nitroglycerine.

At least that was how rumor had it. “No, I don’t doubt it’s true,” Laura told her patients when they asked, as though she would know. As if, after three years as a combat nurse, she’d learned about high explosive from the things it wrote on people’s skin. “Didn’t you see the fireball?”

They all had. Her father had been in one of the boats trying to drown the blaze. Halifax afterward looked as if God had raised a giant burning boot and stamped. Fresh graves in Fairview sat snug beside five-year-old headstones from the Titanic, and the village of the Mi’kmaq had vanished.

And the post was a disaster. That was why she’d not heard from Freddie. He was her brother, he was a soldier; of course a backlog of his letters was lost in a sack somewhere. She had no time to think of it. She had too much to do. The first makeshift hospital had been scraped together in a YMCA the day after the explosion. The snow was bucketing down and Halifax was still on fire. Laura had walked past the uncollected dead. Shut their eyes when she could reach them, laid a hand once on a small bare foot. Three years of active service, and she was familiar with the dead.

Familiar too with the sight of an overrun triage station, although it was her first time to be met not with soldiers, but with parents clutching their burnt children. Laura had taken off her coat, washed her hands, reassured the nearest wild-eyed mother. Had a word with the overwhelmed civilian doctor and set about organizing the chaos.

That was a month ago—or was it six weeks? Time had stretched, as it did when wounded poured in during a battle, reduced not to minutes or hours, but to the pulse and the breath of whoever was under her hands. She slept standing up, and told herself that she was too busy to wonder why Freddie didn’t write.

“That damned virago,” muttered one doctor, half-annoyed, half-admiring. The Barrington hospital was full of willing hands. The Americans, blessedly, had piled a train full of all the gauze, disinfectants, and surgeons in Boston and sent it north. It was January by then, with snowdrifts head-high outside. The gymnasium had been turned into a hospital ward, sensibly laid out, ruthlessly organized, competently staffed. Laura was doing rounds, bent over a bed.

“That harpy,” agreed his fellow. “But she’s forgotten more about dressings than you’ll ever know. She was in the Nursing Corps, you know. Caught a shell over in France somewhere.”

It was Belgium, actually.

“Caught a shell? A nurse, really? What did she do? Dress as a man and creep up the line?”

The first doctor didn’t take the bait. “No—I heard they shelled the forward hospitals.”

A startled pause. Then— “Barbaric,” said the second doctor weakly. Laura kept on taking temperatures. Both doctors stopped talking, perhaps contemplating trying to practice medicine under fire.

“Lord,” the second doctor said finally. “Think all the girls who went to war will come back like that? Cut up, incorrigible?”

A laugh and a shudder. “Christ, I hope not.”

Laura straightened up, smiling, and they both blanched. “Doctor,” she said, and felt the subterranean amusement in her watching patients. She was one of them, after all, born by the harbor, before the world caught fire.

The doctors stammered something; she turned away again. Virago indeed. A fanged wind was tearing white foam off the bay, and her next patient was a blistered little boy. The child wept as she peeled off his dressings.

“Hush,” said Laura. “It’ll only hurt for a moment, and if you’re crying how can I tell you about the purple horse?”

The little boy scowled at her through his tears. “Horses aren’t purple.”

“There was one.” Laura snipped away stained gauze. “I saw it with my own eyes. In France. Naturally, the horse didn’t start out purple. It was white. A beautiful white horse that belonged to a doctor. But the doctor was afraid that someone would see his white horse on a dark night and shoot him. Turn that way. He wanted a horse that would be hard to see at night. So he went to a witch—”

A lurch. “There aren’t witches in France!”

“Of course there are. Be still. Don’t you remember your fairy tales?” Freddie loved them.

“Well, the witches haven’t stayed in France,” the child informed her, in a voice that quivered. “With a war on.”

“Maybe witches like the war. They can do what they like with everyone busy fighting. Now, do you want to hear about the purple horse or not? Turn back.”

“Yes,” said the little boy. He was looking up at her now, wide-eyed.

“All right. Well, the witch gave the doctor a magic spell to make the horse dark. But when the doctor tried it—poof! Purple as a hyacinth.”

The child was finally distracted. “Was it a magic horse?” he demanded. “After it turned purple?”

Laura was tying off the bandages. The child’s tears had dried. “Yes, of course. It could gallop from Paris to Peking in an hour. The doctor went straight to Berlin and pulled the kaiser’s nose.”

The child smiled at last. “I’d like a magic horse. I’d gallop away and find Elsie.”

Elsie was his sister. They’d been walking to school together when the ship blew up. Laura didn’t reply, but smoothed the matted, tow-colored hair and got up. Her brother’s real name was Wilfred, but hardly anyone remembered. He’d been Freddie from infancy. He was serving overseas.

He still hadn’t written back.

“Purple horse?” inquired the doctor-in-charge, passing. Unlike his civilian colleagues, he’d been behind the lines of the Somme in ’16. He and Laura understood each other. They walked off together down the aisle between beds.

“Yes,” said Laura, smiling. “It was early days. Some fool with the RAMC, straight from England. He was assigned the horse, white as you please, got windup about snipers. Tried aniline dye, the poor beast wound up violet.”

The doctor laughed. Laura shook her head and consulted her endless mental checklist. But before she could set off, the three-month-old gash in her leg betrayed her. A cramp buckled her knee, and the doctor caught her by the elbow. Her leg was the reason she was in Halifax, discharged from the medical corps. A bit of shell casing, deep in the muscle. They’d got it out, but almost taken the limb with it. She’d been evacuated on a hospital train.

“Damn,” she said.

“All right, Iven?” said the doctor.

“Just a cramp,” said Laura, trying to shake it loose.

The doctor eyed her. “Iven, you’re a wretched color. When did you come on shift?”

“Flattery, Doctor?” she said. “I’m cultivating a modish pallor.” She didn’t quite remember.

He looked her over, shook his head. “Go home. Or you’ll be in bed with pneumonia. We can manage for twelve hours. Unless you want to go sprawling while holding syringes?”

“I haven’t gone sprawling yet,” she said. “And I still have dressings to—”

She could browbeat most of the staff, but not this one. “I’ll do it. You are not the only person in Halifax who can dress burns, Sister.”

She met his adamant eye, then gave in, threw him a mock salute, and went to take off her apron.

“And eat something!” the doctor called to her retreating back.

The wind struck her in the teeth when she went outside, dried her chapped lips. She pulled her cap closer round her ears. Clouds massed, lividly purple, over the water. She longed to go straight home and drink something hot. But she’d got off early. There was time to go to Veith Street. She hadn’t been there since the explosion.

The wind rippled her skirt, made her nose ache. The task would not improve with keeping. She set off, limping. To her right, the Atlantic heaved under a field gray sky. To her left, the city sloped gently upward, blackened and torn by fire.

Laura Iven was sharp-faced and amber-eyed, her jaw angled, her mouth sweet, her glance satirical, a little sad. She wore a pale blue Red Cross uniform under a shabby wool coat. A knit cap, defiantly scarlet, hid tawny hair chopped short. She walked with the ghost of a brisk, supple stride, marred by the new limp.

About the Author

Katherine Arden
Katherine Arden is the New York Times bestselling author of the Winternight trilogy and the Small Spaces Quartet. In addition to writing, she enjoys aimless travel, growing vegetables, and running wild through the woods with her dog, Moose. She lives in Vermont. More by Katherine Arden
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Random House Publishing Group