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The plot of Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace asks what unfinished business might make effectively a superhero unable to find peace and pass on. Wasp, a desperately lonely archivist of ghost behavior, is tasked with finding out what happened to the world long ago from any ghost that might talk to her, in addition to fighting upstarts each year who want to take her life and her place.
But she meets the dangerous, unnamed ghost of a supersoldier on the hunt for someone he has lost in the underworld. And he thinks Wasp can help.
A strange little village has a ghost problem, one that prevents average citizens from owning the salt that attracts them and which requires an Archivist who can deal with their terrifying antics. Acolytes to Catchkeep are raised by the Catchkeep Priest to fight each other every year for the dubious honor of holding this position, one both envied and reviled.
While the village could be located anywhere at all, it happens to be situated against a cliff where ghosts come and go from the underworld. And be full of girls—Catchkeep’s Chosen—who can interact with them.
Wasp struggles with a rebellious heart under the thumb of the Catchkeep Priest, who has both caught and kept her on several occasions when she has attempted to run away. He needs her to maintain his position as the manager of the Archivist and the upstarts who will take her place, so he must not allow Wasp to leave in order to prove his power and keep control over all of them.
The ghost was once partnered with Foster, a fellow supersoldier and the only other survivor of the program that made them. As rebellious as Wasp, Foster pushed too hard against her own constraints as a weapon of the military, contrasting with the ghost’s preference for following orders.
Since the ghost needs Wasp’s help, he pushes her to find a core of courage she didn’t know she had within herself. To make a truer bid for freedom than she ever has before. Something he failed to help Foster do. Wasp steadily peels back the ghost’s layers of denial, guilt, and memory loss to force him to face his past mistakes and failures.
Together, they sharpen each other, mutual need and desperation driving them to transcend their former selves. To become strong enough to overcome the baggage they brought to the underworld with them.
Archivist Wasp was weird in a way I enjoyed. Emotion riots from every page. Wasp grapples with her desire to escape the hell of her life, but the only alternative seems to be a tenuous existence in the underworld. She’s been raised to believe herself special, but she suspects she’s not. She’s so alone that she craves the respect of a ghost who may have gotten his partner—the last person to have trusted him—killed. A ghost so eaten by guilt that he cannot find peace until he finds her wandering soul.
The plot follows a classic Dantean format of descent into the underworld accompanied by a spectral guide. But the events that take place there read like a fuzzy dream, one whose logic depends on gut instinct and unlikely ideas. As Wasp finds that the ghost’s quest and her unique ability to treat with ghosts are intertwined, she also unravels lies that have served to control her and the rest of Catchkeep’s Chosen for hundreds of years. All while discovering the events of the past that brought about the world’s end that she now lives in.
I find myself struggling to compare Archivist Wasp with anything else I’ve read. But readers who enjoy paranormal post-apocalypse and rivals-to-friends tropes will enjoy this book. Oh, and giving the finger to people in power committed to maintaining the status quo to benefit themselves.
As mentioned above, Archivist Wasp was weird, specifically in a way that had me guessing what the hell could possibly happen next with each new chapter. I found the entire plot refreshingly unfamiliar and filled with tropes I enjoy, like real history transcended into myth, rules of magic that work for reasons wholly unknown and poorly understood, lots and lots of ghosts, and a frightened but capable main character. Admittedly, I don’t know anyone in my life whom I’d recommend Archivist Wasp to, but I suspect I’d appreciate the company of anyone else who enjoys this book.
Have you read this book? I’d love to hear what you thought about it in the comments (book discussions are, after all, the whole reason I write these reviews).
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Featuring an exclusive Hopeful Wanderer short-story!
For over 100 years, Texas High Plains Writers has been a part of great storytelling in Texas and beyond.
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