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Archivist Wasp: When Ghosts Speak


I’ve been trying to give some different kinds of novels my attention this year. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp is one such foray. It was OK, but I was left wondering why there wasn’t more to it. There are spoilers ahead, so be warned!

Archivist Wasp is set on Earth in an undetermined future. Society has clearly long ago collapsed. The great cities of world civilizations have crumbled into dust. Wasp is an Archivist, as the title suggests, whose job it is to hunt ghosts. Ghosts are dangerous, you see–they can kill the unwary. Every year, she must face down duels from upstarts who want to take her place. All of this is instigated by the Catchkeep-priest, who goes out into the world and finds those marked with claw scars on their cheeks by the goddess known as Catchkeep.

Something learned early on is that ghosts don’t talk, which obviously means that a ghost will begin talking to Wasp soon. That is the kind of thing that happens in this book over and over: something said to be rare or difficult or impossible is mentioned, and then shortly after it comes to pass. It’s a common literary technique, but it’s employed so heavy-handedly here that it’s hard to overlook. A major downside is that it makes the novel highly predictable. There are some revelations that occur about halfway through which are announced to the reader so forcefully you just know they will figure into a climactic confrontation at the end of the story, and in fact they do. The ending itself wraps the story in a neat little bow and hits every beat you might want it to. I just wish I had been a bit more surprised.

Wasp’s companion through most of the book is a nameless ghost who can speak to her. Their relationship is one of mutual convenience: the ghost needs Wasp’s help finding someone from its former life; Wasp is looking for a way to escape a life she’s come to hate. They go from untrusting, reluctant companions to developing a deep respect for one another. The ghost’s story, as it happens, introduces a lot of the elements that other readers seemed to enjoy: peeks into the ghost’s past reveal civil war and a super soldier program that isn’t so different from the Archivist system, and indeed has some deep connections to it.

The best parts of the book involve Wasp exploring the world of ghosts, where nothing is as it seems. Nothing goes in a straight line, nothing is what it appears to be, and where you end up is as much a matter of willpower and thought as it is deliberate navigation. These scenes are enjoyable mind-bending and entertaining, as are Wasp’s several debates and arguments with the ghost. These represent the high points of the book, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, there’s not much more to it than that. The story is considerably plot-driven, with the reader being motivated to learn the next morsel of backstory, only to find that it’s pretty much what you guessed it would be. There were only one or two twists I genuinely didn’t expect, but I found myself ahead of the narrative most of the time. It’s disappointing because the writing is good–it does exactly what it needs to do, drawing vivid scenes and laying out situations with a particular efficiency. The language is evocative enough. But for such a short novel, it doesn’t feel densely packed with meat–rather, it feels a bit padded, a bit thin on content.

Wasp and the ghost have obvious similarities: both were tools of their masters, forced to do things they didn’t want to do. It would seem that questions of free will and destiny would figure heavily into this story, but in the end they don’t. The novel is too focused on immediate situations to truly explore the themes it uncovers. It’s as if the author is in a hurry to get us to the next twist, the next revelation, to sweep us quickly to the end. There are times when I want to stop and smell the existential roses, as it were, and I wonder if Ms. Kornher-Stace wasn’t confident that readers would stay engaged with more complex material.

In all fairness, this is a young adult novel, and I tried to adjust my expectations accordingly. I’d been told this one was particularly good, that YA novels have come a long way since the ‘90s. I’m not sure I agree with that. In my attempts to hold it up against the last YA novel I read, which was Find Me, it’s not hard to choose which I like better. Archivist Wasp was more fun to read by a good margin, but less interesting, less challenging. Find Me became a bit of a slog, often descending into self-indulgence. Is there a book out there that exists somewhere in between, with a coherent plot, interesting examinations of its world and characters, and which moves at a good clip? The search continues.

But let me stop criticizing this novel for what it’s not. What it is is a fun science fiction novel with a post-apocalyptic setting that’s plenty accessible and doesn’t ask too much. It’s popcorn reading. There’s little in here to offend, challenge, or stretch the reader, but if you’re willing to go along with the story, you’ll have an enjoyable ride. Sometimes, that’s all a book needs to be.