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Book Review: Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

OK, I am SO in love with Archivist Wasp. It’s a top 10 from me. 2015, you are WONDERFUL so far.

Archivist WaspTitle: Archivist Wasp

Written by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, YA, Adventure, Post-Apocalypse/Dystopia

Publisher: Small Beer Press
Publication Date: May 5, 2015
Hardcover: 268 pages

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.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone but there seems to be a sequel in the works.

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): eBook

Why did I read this book: The premise! The cover! And then a few weeks ago, a few trusted folks on Twitter were singing its praises.

Review:

Archivist Wasp has just survived her third annual Archivist-choosing day and her wounds (she is getting slow) are still fresh, but healing. This time though, she chose to let the last of the upstarts she fought, live. Maybe things will be different this year, she thinks.

The upstart dies anyway.

The Catchkeep-priest makes sure to tell Wasp that, after he steals some of her food, as he twists yet another psychological knife on her side.

But life goes on, and Wasp has another year before the next round of upstarts will fight her in a deadly match in order to become the next Archivist. Another year of this so-called life. Maybe she will finally find a way out. Maybe today will be different.

And it is.

For the past four hundred years, the Archivist is the one chosen by the Goddess Catchkeep to undertake the special mission of capturing, interrogating and dispatching ghosts. The task is to learn about the ghosts’ past, hoping to jog their memories or see anything – anything at all – in their demeanour that will explain why, when or how the world ended.

But as the accurately kept records of previous Archivists attest, ghosts don’t speak. No one knows anything.

Until today.

+++

I don’t even know where to begin telling you how much this book rocks. I loved many, MANY books this year but this one is maybe the one I wish to hand-sell the most. Word-of-mouth, please work, let more people read this.

What makes me so excited about Archivist Wasp? SO MANY THINGS.

It’s set in a bleak, primitive, post-apocalyptic world where no one knows how the world ended. It’s the Archivist’s job to find out through note-taking and the questioning of ghosts. Not that that has shown any results in the past 400 years. Why do they keep the charade? Hope is a bitch, I guess. So are the dynamics of power and who really wields it.

Wasp has been told all her life that she is unique. Essential. That no one can do the job she does, that the goddess Catchkeep is looking after her. Despite this, the Archivist is a dreaded figure, a shunned member of society, living in the outskirts with only the bare essentials, depending on the charity of strangers to sustain herself. She has to fight for her life every year against young, upstarts who have all been branded as children by the Goddess and who live close to squalor. Meanwhile, the priest dude has all the comfort and takes special care to make their lives 100000 times more miserable. The Archivist is told many times she is the chosen one. Yet the duress of her life contradicts this statement on a daily basis.

When Wasp meets the ghost of a supersoldier who can talk to her and who engages her help to find another ghost, someone he might have been looking for, everything she thinks she knows will crumble down like a flimsy castle of cards.

Please note the word “might” used above because the ghost doesn’t quite remember: the older a ghost is, the least he remembers. He doesn’t even know his own name.

And here is what happens next: a buddy trip to the underworld! All of a sudden, the book morphs beautifully into something else. A Quest, a Voyage to the Underworld with a bonus trip down memory lane. Literary. Through the ghost and as an Archivist, Wasp is able to connect with the ghost of the woman they are looking for. More to the point, she is able to access her memories. This aspect of the novel really reminded me one of my favourite Fantasy series – the Dogsland trilogy by J. M. McDermott, by the way. And it’s one of my favourite narrative approaches because in this case, just like in Dogsland, it adds a different layer to the story, two narratives in one, two tales in one, two characters juxtaposed, different and yet not.

But Wasp needs to remember something else first as the entrance ticked to the underworld is to recover one of her own memories.

Her name.

Oh, this moment. YOU GUYS, THIS MOMENT. Have you read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein? Remember when we learn the name of the main character and how the significance of that reverberates throughout? Because it’s a question of knowing, of identity, of self. And this is at the centre of Archivist Wasp.

But also, friendship, partnership, alliances. Between the Ghost and his partner, lost to the memory of eons past. Between the Ghost and Wasp, a slow building friendship without any signs of romance whatsoever, that is painful to read and oh, so beautiful. Because it’s tense. Because it’s desperate. Because it matters so much for both of them.

It ends with the actualisation of the revenge fantasy of my dreams. This is very important to me because from the opening pages there is a character – the priest – whom I completely and utterly DESPISED. The ending is amazing in the way that he gets what he deserves. But not in the way I expected. BETTER. Because now the story becomes clear for what it is: a story about agency, freedom and revolution. All of sudden, this book Mad-Max-Fury-Roaded me, like a boss.

SO! Incredible characters – fleshed-out, human, complicated: check. Beautiful writing: check. Plot that develops like it was written for me: check. A cool mixture of Fantasy and Science Fiction, because ghosts but also super-soldiers: check and check.

Reminiscent of everything I love but completely its own thing, a SF YA like I haven’t read in a while, Archivist Wasp is a book I will treasure.

Now, you might be asking yourself: is this yet another 10-rated book for 2015 from The Book Smugglers? WHY, YES. YES IT IS.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From the prologue:

As it did every year in the days that followed the Archivist-choosing day, Wasp’s recovery routine kicked in each morning even before she’d come completely awake. It was her third year as Archivist, after all, the third year she’d stayed at least a week in bed so the wounds could knit themselves to scabs, then scars. By now, the steps came to her easy as breathing.

One. Check the bandages.

The smallish ones on her neck, legs, and shoulders, then the wide one at her side where the third upstart’s second knife had gone in and stayed—until Wasp had pulled it out and flung it at her head, ruining an ear. Also the set of neat stitches tracking down her lower lip to her chin, and the other one cutting across the old scars on her cheekbone and up into her temple.

For the first few days, this was as far as she had gotten before pain and exhaustion had overcome her, and she’d spent those days drifting in and out of healing sleep, in and out of less productive nightmares.

Today, all seemed sound.

Two. Sit up.

This took longer than she would like, and she expected any moment to feel the pull and gush down her hip where the deep wound had reopened. She dreaded this, of course, but more than that she dreaded another round of festering and a fever high enough she could practically boil water on her forehead when she tried to treat the newly opened wound herself. Exactly a year ago she’d nearly killed herself doing exactly that, but she was fairly sure she’d do it again. A choice between a moment with a heated knife and a bottle of spirits and a rag to scream into, or letting the midwife back at her, didn’t seem to her like much of a choice at all.

There was a pull, but no gush came.

Three. Stand.

The fracture in her ankle screamed but held, and a glance at her bandaged side in the light discovered no bloodstains, no greenish watermarks of pus. She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth against what was coming, and bounced a little on her toes to see if they’d take her weight.

If she ground down hard on whatever desperate messages her ankle was firing at her brain, she could push through or outstubborn the rest.

“Finally,” she whispered.

Four. Get back to work.

Her injuries were different (and, alarmingly, more plentiful) than last year’s, so, as she did every year, Wasp improvised, inching her way back out into the world.

Two weeks in bed had taken their toll. Her arms felt weaker, somehow stiff and rubbery at once, as did her legs. When she bent down to touch her toes, the muscles in the backs of her thighs began complaining even before the wound at her side got its say. Squatting over her pissing-pot was agony. So she tried to stretch her back and instantly her side felt like someone had stuck a pick in it and twisted.

She paced a bit, feeling like a caged cat, trying to outwalk the pain. She wished she could limp back into bed. Sleep, dream, let the Catchkeep-priest set the upstarts at each others’ throats until whoever was left standing became Archivist in her place. There would be another soon enough at this rate anyway.

But there was the backpack in a corner, and therewere the jars and knife and saltlick, and she never would have gotten away with it. Wasp knew quite well that two weeks abed was already enough of a display of weakness, without adding any more wasted days on top of it. She knew what the dozen surviving upstarts must be saying about how long it’d taken her to beat the three who’d drawn this year’s short straws, and how many wounds they’d given her. How Wasp just wasn’t what she used to be. How next year it’d be her on the wrong end of the knife. It had to be eventually. It always was.

She couldn’t keep that day from coming. But she could push it out of reach a little longer.

Rating: 10

Buy the Book:

(click on the links to purchase)

Book Depository UK amazon_uk

Ebook available for kindle US, Small Beer Press, itunes

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9 Comments

  • Chachic
    July 7, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Sold! This one looks really good. Aside from the high rating, you also mentioned Code Name Verity!

  • Lisa
    July 7, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    I bought this book based on your Tweets on it alone. Reading right now! 🙂

  • MaxL
    July 8, 2015 at 12:04 am

    I picked it up based on the tweets and I loved it

  • Nikki Egerton
    July 8, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Your wish that more people would read this is coming true, I’m off to buy it right now!
    🙂

  • Maureen E
    July 8, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    I just got this from the library today! HURRAY!

    Side note: re the CNV point–I’m still weirdly leery of saying Verity’s name, which is ridiculous given that the book has been out for three years at this point. Except that it’s not, because that moment is so pivotal and affecting.

  • Aentee @ Read at Midnight
    July 15, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    I bought this one partially because I saw you tweet about it! So excited to get started, it sounds most amazing.

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