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Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace


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-lost 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.
Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel of post-apocalypse is receiving a huge buzz, with positive reviews from luminaries like Liz Bourke and Amal El-Mohtar; Archivist Wasp may be dark, dystopian and grim, but it’s getting the same kind of reception as a novel like Uprooted or Goblin Emperor. The question is, how does the novel hold up to the buzz…?

The biggest strength of Archivist Wasp comes from Wasp, its protagonist. Kornher-Stace appears to have taken notes from some of the heroes on this list – but with a certain kind of conscience; Wasp knows how monstrous her actions are, but still commits them, knowing they are necessary for her survival – and making her central rule survival. The novel opens in the middle of a duel for her role as Archivist, against an upstart aiming to take her place; as if to set the scene for the rest of the novel Kornher-Stace has Wasp debate simply letting the upstart kill her… before allowing her bloody-mindedness to instead dictate the alternate course. That bloody-mindedness also leads to Wasp sparing the upstart, against tradition; another example of the ways in which Wasp confounds the expectations placed upon her by her role and the society in which she lives. In tht regard, this has something of the feel of a young adult novel; Archivist Wasp is all about Wasp fighting back against expectations of others and against the easiest course for her life, instead fighting for her independence with a fierce stubborness which is not presented as a wonderful thing to be imitated but instead as a brutal harshness in her that can be used for positive or negative ends.

The only other significant character of Archivist Wasp is the nameless ghost whose quest she takes as her own, for a price; we meet this nameless character a little way into the book as we see Wasp engaging in her role as ghost-hunter, finding, capturing and interrogating ghosts to learn about the apocalypse and to keep her world safe. Ghost, unlike Wasp, is very much an enigma whose character is slowly revealed across the course of the novel; whereas the question of Wasp is about the balance between stubborn rebellion and will to survive at any cost, including her integrity, the ghost is only questions, slowly answered across the course of the novel and the quest. It’s a beautiful paradigm as Wasp and the ghost keep each other guessing, our only two things to grasp first in the physical world and then in the afterlife; Kornher-Stace doesn’t make it easy for the audience, as Wasp is often actively hostile to both ghost and reader (although the tale is told in third-person past), and at times the narrative becomes a little disjointed as it follows Wasp so closely, but it creates a fantastic sense of character.

The sense of setting is much harder to get a grasp on, in part because much of Archivist Wasp takes place in the underworld (a true Hero’s Journey), and in part because it is so geographically specific and imprecise when on the surface; the world Kornher-Stace creates bears a vague resemblance to ours but there’s no sense of how to get from one to the other, although from a couple of mentions it is clear that the novel is set on Earth, and the vagueness of setting can be at times frustrating, making it hard to get a grasp on the plot and what’s happening exactly, as the world doesn’t make sense and so the characters’ actions, motivated by their world, don’t seem to follow anything. This is especially true of Wasp, who Kornher-Stace has a slight problem with keeping on track; every time she has to make a decision she seems to have forgotten the last decision, and the world backs her up in this, itself appearing to have forgotten her prior actions, strangely.

The plot is deceptively simple; Archivist Wasp follows Wasp and the ghost on a quest for someone from the ghost’s life, now dead and in the underworld. Along the way, Wasp discovers more about the pre-apocalyptic world, about the ghost and the person they are searching for, and about her own past; at times these reveals are singularly contrived and seem to come from nowhere, as in the case of the biggest reveal about Wasp’s past which is necessary for the end of the novel but comes from nowhere, and at times they are a little disjointed, but what Kornher-Stace is excellent at is conveying the emotional toll of each revelation. The brutality of the world Wasp comes from and the strangeness and grey cruelty of the (very Homeric) underworld create different challenges – although the repetition of combat is perhaps a bit of a problem, especially when the only toll of much of it is physical, rather than emotional; and at times that repetition is used to excellent effect by Kornher-Stace for character development, but largely it has a feeling of sameness.

Archivist Wasp isn’t really about the simple plot, but about the character trajectories that plot allows; the archetypical hero’s journey to retrieve someone from the afterlife, a staple of stories right back to Hercules and Orpheus, has always told us more about the character making the trip than anything else, and this particular iteration of that journey is no different; Kornher-Stace does that excellently, if at times with a touch too little control of her narrative. I can recommend this, but perhaps a little more warily than many others have done.

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