By Nicole Kornher-Stace
Available now from Big Mouth House (Small Beer Press)
ARCHIVIST WASP has been showing up on a number of Best of lists, so I had very high hopes. It has a great name, a striking cover, and comes from the imminently cool Small Beer Press (founded by Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link). The opening certainly caught my attention. Wasp, in a fight to the death, decides to stop the cycle of violence and spare her opponent.
In the end, however, I didn't really like ARCHIVIST WASP. I thought it meandered too much and combined two stories that didn't really fit together. I kept waiting for an ah-ha moment to bring the story together, but it didn't happen. Wasp shows a lot of personal growth over the novel, but it was hard to connect the event happening to the changes in her character. The prose of the novel flowed smoothly, but how the characters decided to move from point A to point B often seemed more a function of what Nicole Kornher-Stace wanted to happen next than anything to do with actual motive.
The two main characters are Wasp and a ghost who convinces her to go on a journey to the underworld with him, to find a companion he left behind in life and needs to find in death. The ghost is driven to find her for closure. Wasp is driven to find her because once the quest gets going she's invested, mostly. (She helps him at first for medical attention.)
Wasp eventually returns home for her big triumph. ARCHIVIST WASP is yet another novel where a man uses religion to keep a bunch of dangerous girls down. It's a familiar story in feminist science fiction, and one not given enough space to breathe. Too much of the novel is about the quest that has nothing to do with the religion or how people are treated in Wasp's present and it only coincidentally gives her the key to fighting back.
Meanwhile, how did this world get from the ghost's day to Wasp's? In the ghost's day, the big issue was the ethics of human experimentation, not the ways religion is used to oppress. There is a huge commonality about people being used as weapons, and yet that thread never seems to get teased out.
ARCHIVIST WASP is stylish, with an underworld that requires you to travel by means of the things that aren't quite right. For me, it needed another draft to really help the disparate elements cohere. As it is, I think ARCHIVIST WASP is a case of style over substance. If only the characters were as fleshed out as some of the nightmare landscapes.