LitStack Review: Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

by Sharon Browning

Archivist WaspArchivist Wasp
Nicole Kornher-Stace
Big Mouth House Publishing
Release Date:  May 5, 2015
ISBN 978-1-61873-097-8

Wasp isn’t her real name.  But it’s the one given her by the Catchkeep-priest, who oversees all the girls who serve in the goddess Catchkeep’s name, upstart and Archivist alike.  He gave her the name, because it fit and because he could.

Wasp is an Archivist.  The Archivist.  One of those marked from birth as Catchkeep’s own, and holy.  The one who fought the former Archivist to the death after drawing the short straw on Choosing day, as is tradition, and who had woven a lock of the dead girl’s hair into her own to claim her place as Catchkeep’s emissary, ambassador and avatar on earth.  “Mine is the mouth through which the dead world speaks.  Mine are the hands that record what the dead world left behind.  Mine are the eyes that hold vigil, so that the old world’s death does not return to kill the world anew.”

In Archivist Wasp, we are introduced to a world far into our future, long after our world has collapsed.  This is a primitive world, full of superstition and fear borne from the barest understanding of how far humanity has fallen.  It is also a world where ghosts both freshly dead and from a bygone age walk the earth, mindless and dangerous, drawn to salt and blood.  It is the Archivist’s duty to capture these ghosts, to glean any information that can be drawn from them, and then to perform the ritual that will either destroy them, or send them on to Catchkeep who will carry them to green elysian shores.

Wasp hates being the Archivist.  She hates being shunned and feared by the villagers, of being taunted and used by the Catchkeep-priest, of being constantly reminded that there is a whole stable of girls who hope to kill her and take her place, and she hates harvesting the ghosts.

There had been Archivists before her who enjoyed destroying ghosts.  There might well be another when she was dead.  Wasp wasn’t one of them.  Something about how most ghosts never seemed to want to stay still for the ritual, kept trying to drag themselves out of the circle and back toward where they’d popped out of nothing into the living world, flopping against their salt tethers like a fish out of water.  In the stories they all went on to Catchkeep joyfully, but whatever Wasp saw in them, she didn’t reckon it was joy.

Still, she is the chosen of Catchkeep, and wears Her mark upon her cheek.  Besides, she has tried to run away many times before, and each time she has been caught, beaten, and returned to her duties by the Catchkeep-priest.  A sullen Wasp notes that it is always the priest who pursues her; Catchkeep Herself doesn’t seem to mind.  But she has resigned herself to believing that the only way she can escape is through death, and she isn’t ready to give up that easily.

It is on an excursion to Execution Hill, where ghosts are thick, that Wasp encounters a ghost like no other.  It is strong, incredibly strong even for a ghost, and astonishingly, it can communicate with her, something hoped for over years (according to the copious field notes from prior Archivists), but unheard of until now.  This unnamed specter asks for her help locating someone from its past, and since the role of an Archivist in not only to cull, but to learn – and this is an extraordinary opportunity – Wasp agrees.  What ensues is an incredible journey, to the places of the dead, to the worlds between the worlds, and into the past, in a story that it both fanciful and full of threat, and which unearths the ending of a world full of marvels, done in by factions and greed and hauteur.

Reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, this desperate quest – undertaken by both the living and the dead, utilizing extraordinary means – often leads to experiences that are non-linear, seemingly illogical and dangerously perplexing .  During this disparate journey, Wasp learns more about herself and her own world than she could even could conceive of as being possible, and that overwhelming knowledge threatens to defeat her, where armed combat and an abusive existence could not.  But if there is one thing that Wasp cannot do, it is accept defeat.  And so she takes the promise she has made to the ghost, and clings to it even as her understanding of her own world and her place in it is shaken to the core.

Archivist Wasp is a very well conceived, gritty, complex tale that molds a dystopia around a dystopia, linked with spectral existences and bound with a tenuous trust.   The character of Wasp stands toe to toe with other heroic figures of speculative literature; she is both tough and compassionate, uncomplaining yet contemplative,  a skilled combatant yet not an elite warrior; someone who has learned to trust her own intuition, even if the outcome leads to pain and despair.  She is worn down, beaten up, and just plain tired, but she never gives up, if only to keep others from seeing how hurt she truly is.  Weakness is a liability, in whichever world you happen to be inhabiting.

This book is being marketed as Teen Fiction, which is a misnomer, in my opinion.  Yes, Wasp is young, and yes, she embarks on a journey of discovery, but her struggles and her strengths will speak to those of all ages, and perhaps speak just as dearly to those of us who are a bit more world-worn as those who are still looking forward to a as yet undefined future.  I personally can attest to identifying with someone who appears to carry more of the weight of the world on her shoulders than could be considered her fair allotment in life.

A very interesting, very involving, very demanding – yet incredibly rewarding – read, indeed.  Archivist Wasp is a novel to pick up if you want to be challenged and yet intrigued, without undue moralizing or caution.  It won’t be the easiest book to read, but it will be one that will draw you in, regardless of where you might end up landing.

~ Sharon Browning


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