Wasp’s job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist. Desperate and alone, she strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier. She will go with him on his underworld hunt for the long-long ghost of his partner and in exchange she will find out more about his pre-apocalyptic world than any Archivist before her. And there is much to know. After all, Archivists are marked from birth to do the holy work of a goddess. They’re chosen. They’re special. Or so they’ve been told for four hundred years.
Archivist Wasp fears she is not the chosen one, that she won’t survive the trip to the underworld, that the brutal life she has escaped might be better than where she is going. There is only one way to find out.
I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to summing up Archivist Wasp. My feelings are really contradictory. There’s quite a bit here that’s interesting and different, but I’m not sure that the plot as a whole holds together convincingly.
The opening chapters place the setting firmly in a primitive type of society, in a poor country village full of superstition and fear. The Archivist is the Chosen One (into every generation…), but each year, she fights upstarts (girls in training to be Archivist — for the Buffy fans out there, think “potentials”) in order to retain her position. The fight is to the death, bloody and terrible, watched and betted on by the townsfolk, all under the watchful eye of the Catchkeep-priest, who controls the upstarts and the Archivist. Catchkeep is the main god of this society, but there are others, such as Carrion Boy and Ember Girl. It’s startling, though, to see certain seemingly anachronistic elements intrude. Weaponry includes not just swords, but guns.
Guns? What’s going on here?
As becomes clear further in the story, this primitive society isn’t from an earlier era, but a later one. Reference is made to the Before, apparently before whatever cataclysmic event hundreds of years earlier erased the modern world as we know it. The world of Archivist Wasp is bleak and dismal — and plagued by a non-stop stream of ghosts. The job of the Archivist, when not fighting for her life, is to capture ghosts in jars, observe them and take field notes on their behavior, and then release them to Catchkeep, severing their links to the world of the living. The ghosts are silvery, small beings, yet some take on a more physical form and wreak havoc. How do you catch a ghost? With blood and salt. Them ghosties love salt, apparently — so much so that villagers are forbidden to keep any in their homes, for fear of attracting unwanted attention.
The action of Archivist Wasp kicks into high gear when Wasp captures a ghost that displays unusual strength, to the point that it can actually communicate with her. It’s the ghost of a soldier, and he wants Wasp’s help in finding the ghost of his former partner. To achieve this, they must travel into the underworld, through hidden portals and against great danger, with Wasp using her special harvesting knife to draw out hidden memories and find out the truth behind what happened to the soldier and his partner.
There’s a lot that’s interesting about this book, but my main stumbling blocks are these:
1 – Uneven pacing. Some chapters were impossible to look away from… but there are parts where the characters seem to just be slogging forward, one journey after another, with not much actually happening.
2 – Confusing world-building. We never do find out what happened to transform the world from what it was to what it is. We can make assumptions, but more details would have been helpful. Likewise, the underworld is a murky dreamscape with rules and properties that seem to change from moment to moment. It was unclear what to expect or why, and this left me with a sense that the stakes were artificial and potentially not really dangerous after all.
3 – Wasp’s community and her motivations. Why do Wasp and the other girls just accept their lot in life? Why does it never occur to them to challenge the system?
4 – The purpose of the Archivist. The actual goal is murky. Are they trying to learn from the ghosts? Banish the ghosts? And what does killing each other achieve? If they’re trying to learn as much as possible, why have only one?
5 – The ghosts. Where do they come from? Why are there so many? What would happen if the Archivist didn’t capture them and just left them to carry on? Why can ghosts wield swords and other weapons, carry physical objects, and inflict harm on living humans?
6 – The religion. I’d like to know more about how the local pantheon came to be and how the belief system was shaped. (I suppose this ties in with #2, the world-building.)
So many unanswered questions.
On the positive side, I liked the story of the super-soldier and his partner, and the tragedy that’s revealed as Wasp uncovers more and more of the ghost’s memories. That story alone would make a great book, and those sections of Archivist Wasp that dealt with this part of the plot are the most compelling.
I also enjoyed the parallels to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, although the similarities only go so far. The goal here is to free a ghost who can’t move on, not to return her to the land of the living, but still, the journey to the underworld is full of obstacles and dangers that give the quest a mythic, larger-than-life overtone.
Finally, toward the end of the book, we get more of an explanation about the origin of the Archivist system and the power of the Catchkeep-priest, and it’s a powerful origin story — but for me, it felt like it all came too late. By the time we get some answers, I felt mostly worn out by the story and the inconsistencies, and didn’t have the investment necessary to really care all that much about the outcome.
But Wait! Here are other other opinions:
Rather than just close with what I thought of Archivist Wasp, I thought I’d share some other viewpoints. I read this book because it was my book group’s pick for January, and several members of the group really loved the book. I want to share some of their comments, to give a slightly different take on the book and showcase a little more of the positive. (Comments below are in different colors to denote different commenters; quoted from our book group discussion)
I loved this book. There were some scenes which made me pause. One of my favorite scenes, and there are a number of them, is [spoiler deleted]. It’s so revealing of our own mindsets and how we need to open our minds, perhaps we need to cut the threads that bind us to old, stagnant ideas about our world.
I remember admiring Wasp for her compassion and willingness to help others despite her own awful circumstances. And, for figuring out how to help the other girls in her same situation (or I suppose the same as her past situation before she became the archivist), as well as the townspeople, all of whom were being taken advantage of by the Catchkeep Priest (who was just awful!).
The message of growing up and learning who you are and what you can achieve is important for teen girls to hear.
Wasp’s innate sensibilities and caring for her “charges” despite her own upbringing, or maybe because of it, make her a likable and sympathetic protagonist. She keeps going, trying to do the right thing despite personal consequences and little or no reward. That gives this story great heart; it’s also certainly very creative.
In the end, there did seem to be a message about challenging handed down beliefs and finding your own truth.
And a comment from the author herself:
If Wasp is remembered as a YA heroine, I’d like it to be because she’s a 16-year-old girl protagonist that managed to drive her own story without it hinging on a romance or a love triangle or a prophecy or any of these things that are perceived to be necessary to any and all YA plotlines, howsoever clumsily they have to be shoehorned in because they aren’t necessary. There are teenage girls out there who are a lot like Wasp. I was one. I was friends with others. I want her to do her small part to provide a little representation for them.
Wrapping it all up:
One thing I’ve discovered from my book group discussion (for which the author generously participated in a Q&A) is that Archivist Wasp is in fact the first in a trilogy. I think I might have felt slightly differently about some of the unanswered questions had I known that from the start, as then I might have expected some threads to be left dangling until the next books.
My own reading experience and opinion of the book hasn’t changed, but I do appreciate what I’ve gleaned from the Q&A and my book group friends’ opinions, and can see why this book might strongly appeal to teen readers and to adults who enjoy YA fiction.
Title: Archivist Wasp
Author: Nicole Kornher-Stace
Publisher: Big Mouth House
Publication date: April 13, 2015
Length: 268 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy