“The knife. She’d lost the knife. Now she was as good as dead.”
Wasp is the Archivist of her post-apocalyptic society, and in this instance the title of Archivist translates roughly to ghost hunter/scholar. Also, if you look at that sentence I just wrote, you will see why this book is called Archivist Wasp! Neat! Anyways. Wasp is the “chosen one” or whatever in that she was born with the goddess Catchkeep’s mark on her face, which means that she grew up in a shrine run by an asshole of a priest with a bunch of other young women similarly chosen by the goddess. She, of all these girls, is Archivist because she killed her predecessor in the ritualized choosing ceremony and, three years later, is as yet undefeated. Her job is to catch ghosts and try to get them to talk so she can learn about how the world ended, which is hard because ghosts don’t really talk to people until suddenly one does and he asks her to journey into the world of the dead with him to help him find his partner’s ghost.
I’ve been excited about this book for a long time. The premise sounded awesome; I mean, a post-apocalyptic ghost hunter?! Sign me up! It has also gotten a loooottttt of love from various reliable sources (check the Book Smugglers review, as well as the write-up in Someday My Printz Will Come), so double and triple sign me up!
At first blush I loved this book to pieces. On a sentence level, Kornher-Stace’s writing is beautiful and evocative even when it’s at its most brutal. The world was intriguing, and Wasp’s lonesome plight in this ravaged wasteland of a world sucked me in immediately. I really, really loved it until suddenly, I didn’t.
First of all, I’d like to say that even though I ended up feeling a bit bleh about Archivist Wasp in the end, it gets a lot of things very right. As stated, the premise and the initial world-building was weird, original, and gorgeous in its horror. I’ve never read a world quite like this one; in a way, it reminded me of a post-apocalyptic Sabriel, which was ever so exciting. I’m always a sucker for a story that balances upon the imbalance of gendered power; in this case, the male Catchkeep priest (unnamed) gets to lead a cozy existence while the upstarts and the Archivist do all the hard work while receiving abuse at his hands and scorn from the rest of the world (that part I never totally understood…). I loved how the ghost, and every other male character, remained unnamed while even minor female characters are named and therefore given significance, i.e., the reverse of much of history. I also loved the conspicuous absence of romance; I prepared myself for a pretty massive eye roll when the ghost rolled up in the scene, expecting instalove or something equally barfy, but it never happened. There was no romance, no love triangle, nada, and I can’t even begin to say how refreshing that was.
So, with all of these wonderful strengths going for it, what the hell went wrong?
For one, the character development was pretty one-dimensional, for the most part. The priest was cartoonish in his villainy, and I tend to get pretty irritated when the bad guy’s main character trait is that he’s the bad guy. WHY was he such a sadistic asshole? Why did he hate Wasp so much in particular? Who the fuck knows, but that brings me to the number one most offensive thing about this book:
(Personally offensive, not offensive in the grand scheme of the world.)
I hated Wasp. HATED. I understand that, because she had a horrible go of it for her entire life, she’s naturally not going to be happy-go-lucky and charming and sugar and spice and everything nice. However, she clobbered me in the funny bone of a major pet peeve, which is characters whose single defining feature is their angst. Aside from the fact that she’s defensive and angry, I know basically nothing about who this character is, and after the first hundred or so pages of reading her anger towards the ghost (why…exactly?) I was pretty much ready for him to cut the chord tethering her to her physical body so she could vanish into the ether or otherwise just disappear. She annoyed me that much. I cannot stand reading dialogue between two characters that consists mostly of misplaced antagonism and an inability to actually communicate. I’ve put down lesser books for that very same offense, and the only reason I kept going was because I liked Kornher-Stace’s writing style, a lot, and because I had hope that the strong start would make a comeback.
Note how I say “strong start” here, and not “strong story.” As soon as Wasp voyages into the underworld with the ghost my interest pretty much plummeted, mostly because of massive, gaping plot holes. There were a handful of moments when I had to go back and reread a few pages to see if I had missed something, but no. There are so many instances of unexplained magic and incomplete world building that the plot straddles the line between nonsense and, well, sense quite a few times. I read to the end because the trippy ass descriptions of the underworld gave my imagination a hell of a goose, but between hating Wasp and not fully understanding why she and the ghost were going about their business in the way that they were, I never felt very invested in what actually happened. In the end, I was reading this book for the sake of reading, not because I was immersed in the actual experience.
However, that said, I can see why a lot of people love this book; these shortcomings may not be so problematic for everyone, and hell, they might not even be shortcomings for every reader. I know a lot of people have said they loved Wasp for her strength, so good on them. Thematically it’s incredible strong, with the focus on friendship in the face of extreme loneliness and the smashing of patriarchal bullshit. The underlying concept is bold and genre-bending, and Nicole Kornher-Stace’s writing is impressive, but the issues above rankled me so much that I couldn’t quite overlook them. Oh well. You win some, you lose some, I guess.