Review: Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

archivist wasp

I find myself in the awkward position of not having a whole lot of complimentary things to say about this book. Many of my favorite reviewers on the Internet absolutely loved this book, and given the premise of Archivist Wasp, I was convinced I would too.

In a universe rendered post-apocalyptic after some unknown disaster lives Wasp the Archivist. Her job? Hunt the ghosts that haunt her town, take notes on any specimen worth recording, and dispatch them to the afterworld. Raised from infancy in a creche of young girls known as upstarts, they are all marked by the goddess Catch-Keep as her potential chosen to ascend to the position of Archivist. Every year Wasp is bound by tradition to fight and kill three younger upstarts to keep her position, and her life. Furious at the traditions that force her to fight for a role she despises in order to stay alive, Wasp makes a bargain with a former soldier—a ghost who lived prior to the apocalypse, stronger than any ghost she’s seen. She goes down with him into the underworld to find the ghost of his partner, and he’ll give Wasp a chance at freedom. Of course, the underworld is a dangerous place to enter for those who aren’t truly dead, and Wasp is running on borrowed time to find a ghost from the Soldier’s past, a past that he can barely remember.

Awesome premise, right? Apocalyptic universe, ritual blood-shedding, ghost-hunting, mysterious pasts, a protagonist named Wasp? (Seriously, how cool is that name?) I went into Archivist Wasp expecting something amazing. Instead I got something that was “meh.” I didn’t find the story as compelling as I thought I would. Wasp and the Soldier were satisfactory characters, but I didn’t have strong feelings about them one way or the other. If anything, my favorite character was Foster, the Soldier’s partner, and she only showed up in flashbacks of the Soldier’s former life.

Additionally, the world-building felt too sparse—we’re not supposed to know anything about what caused the world to explode and revert to a more archaic state of existence, but the roughly-sketched picture we get feels as though it was rendered vague for vagueness’ sake. The vagueness of the history and world the Soldier comes from is compounded by the fact that he can’t remember anything about his past, so he’s no help when it comes to providing any useful detail or insight.

The plot tended to meander all over the place without seeming to make much meaningful forward progress. The portion of the book taking place in the Underworld felt forced, and some sections felt entirely unnecessary, such as when Wasp and the Ghost wander in the underground lair in the Underworld and later almost drown in the river. Nothing of any import or relevance to the story at hand happened—these scenes seemed to exist solely to move from Point A to Point B for no discernible reason. It’s as though the sequence of events were made to arranged like an ill-fitting puzzle rather than a seamlessly connected narrative. The book’s ending technically comes out of Wasp’s decisions and the information she and the Soldier uncover, but didn’t feel as though it was truly earned.

I also wasn’t a fan of how closely Wasp and the Soldier + Foster were written to be parallels of each other in their respective worlds—taken from their families when very young to be raised as fighters and weapons, taught to think of and treat their fellow trainees as opponents, elevated to high-status positions which isolate them from all other humans, etc. Parallels aren’t as effective when each side mirrors the other so closely, and these two sides were so similar as to be redundant.

The writing was good, even excellent in some places—“And maybe that’s all a ghost is, in the end. Regret, grown legs, gone walking.” But this wasn’t one of those books where the writing was so beautiful you could read the it just for the writing while giving the story a pass.

I did find it interesting that, despite the fact that both Wasp and the Soldier’s respective worlds seem non-gendered, the position of Archivist is traditionally held by women, and all of the upstarts marked by Catch-Keep are female as well. The Catch-Keep Priest who oversees the upstarts and acts as a sort of religious head for the village is male. It’s especially interesting in light of the fact that upstarts are trained from a very small age to be ruthless fighters, inculcated with the knowledge that they will one day fight to kill each other for the position of Archivist. It’s not an Earth-typical cultural/religious institution rooted in gender roles about what qualities men or women “inherently” possess, yet the structure of a male religious leader holding power over several young women, including the Archivist herself, is entirely the same. It’s very strange, and I still don’t know what to make of it.

Nevertheless, I did really appreciate the fact that every single female character with speaking lines was raised to be aggressive and fight as dirty and ruthlessly as possible. Not all of them do, but they’re all capable of it.

I also really liked the flashbacks into the Soldier and his partner Foster’s life, who were also raised to be weapons in their own time, and were brutally discouraged by those in charge from developing any ties with their fellow inmates. The way the Soldier and Foster each looked out for each other and fought to keep the other alive at risk to themselves was really touching.

This review makes it sound like I really disliked this book, which isn’t the case. There’s a lot of good writing, characterization, and ideas in Archivist Wasp. And it was decently entertaining—I wouldn’t have stuck with it otherwise. For me, this book fell victim to especially high expectations. I started the book believing it would be an unequivocally fantastic book, and ended it disappointed this turned out not to be the case.

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