RogerBW's Blog

Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace 07 January 2016

2015 fantasy. Wasp is an Archivist, hunting, studying and binding ghosts for the goddess Catchkeep and Her priest in a world that has suffered some great catastrophe in the distant past.

I almost gave up on this book around a third of the way through, because it seemed so much less interesting than the book in my mind that seemed as though it should go with this title. Wasp's world, both the external environment and her mind, is a dreary place, and as the narration is tight third-person we don't get anyone else's perspective. Every year the Archivist has to fight to the death with three "upstarts", girls also marked for Catchkeep's service, and if any of them beats her they'll be the new Archivist. Nobody likes the Archivist, and she doesn't much like them. Well, that's all setup for the real story.

That real story is one of ghosts, and the underworld where they live. Ghosts never talk, but Wasp meets one that does, and it makes a bargain with her… because there are things that ghosts want, too. The bulk of the book is a journey through the world of the ghosts, which is also a world of the mind, and an echo of the time before everything fell apart.

In shape this is very much a bildungsroman and/or hero's journey, but it doesn't feel tired the way many such stories do; yes, the things Wasp learns in the land of the dead will have an effect on her normal life, but in a way that feels genuine. I think that may be because Wasp is no naïve farmgirl or blank-slate proxy for the reader: there are lots of things she doesn't know as the book starts, but she is a functioning adult, if not a very pleasant one.

Even so, something was prodding her gently at the back of her mind. It took her a moment to recognize it as her conscience.

Names are important. Wasp's guide is always "the ghost"; her superior is always "the Catchkeep-priest". Wasp herself had another name once, and in the first of a series of points of self-discovery she has to remember it.

There are many clichéd paths that could have been taken and aren't. We don't find out about the details of the end of the world. We don't meet the gods. (Yes, this isn't a book that gives all the answers, though it does resolve the most important things.) There isn't a forced romance. This is a very personal story at all times, even if many of the people are technically dead.

Somewhat to my surprise after my early disappointment, this turned out to be one of my favourite books of the year. Highly recommended.

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