Okay, I picked a sample of this one up because of Chachic’s recommendation; it appeared on her Best of 2015 post.
Then Archivist Wasp also appeared as a nominee for the Andre Norton Award this year, and I thought, fine, and moved it to the top of my TBR pile.
And the sample was okay, so I went ahead and got the book.
And, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner here, that’s for sure. Archivist Wasp is going to have to bump something else for my Hugo nominations, that’s all there is to it.
Archivist Wasp starts with a life-and-death struggle:
The knife. She’d lost the knife. Now she was as good as dead.
Frantically she scanned the sand around her. No knife. How far off could it have landed? She squinted to see farther out, but the crowd’s torches were too far back for the blade to catch their light. She swore under her breath. Fractions of a second passed where she, Wasp, three years Archivist and terror of the upstarts, actually froze. They were probably the last fractions of a second she had left.
Spoiler: Wasp wins this fight and has quite a lot of seconds left.
Let me tell you about Wasp.
Well, first let me tell you a little about the world she lives in. What a nasty, brutal world it is! Especially for Wasp and girls like her. The setting is somewhere between secondary world fantasy and dystopia – in an ordinary dystopia, the background story has something to do with our world turning into the setting of the story. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, because it’s hard to imagine how our world could possibly have turned into this one.
On the surface, the setting does look like a fairly typical dystopia: we see a low-tech village-centered landscape, a world of hardscrabble poverty and petty tyranny. We don’t get a good notion of what the broader world is like, though there are hints it’s not much better anywhere nearby. But underneath the surface exists a level of reality that is totally different from anything we know. This is the underworld of the ghosts.
What a peculiar and creepy underworld! It has no obvious correspondence to any mythological underworld I know of; no, it’s peculiar and creepy in its own special way. You have to look slantwise at things or they might disappear; you never seem to wind up where you thought you were heading; doorways seldom look like doorways. Beyond all that, there’s a bridge made of death-offerings, a weeping willow that’s actually made of tiny bones strung together, packs of slavering hounds that melt into black sludge when you kill them, tattered pieces of ghosts hung on thorn briars . . . as I said, creepy.
Not that most people ever get to see this world unless they’re ghosts themselves. Except for Wasp. And she has an unusual companion to show her the way.
Okay, so, Wasp.
She’s the Archivist. She collects the occasional spoken utterances of the dead, she collects and destroys ghosts that cause too many problems for the living, things like that. She was marked before birth by the goddess Catchkeep as one of the girls who might be Archivist, but to win the position she had to fight and kill the previous Archivist. Now every year she has to fight and kill three girls – not exactly volunteers; the marked girls draw straws – in order to keep her position.
The story isn’t about the fighting, though. This isn’t The Hunger Games; nothing like it. Wasp’s ugly past and grim present are part of what makes her who she is, but that’s all background.
The rest of what makes her who she is . . . well, let’s see. Lifelong isolation. Innate stubbornness. Anger. Endurance. And an unquenchable penchant for kindness, despite the risk of dire punishment if she’s caught.
Wasp has never had real family, nor a friend, nor an ally. Not even a pet; the shrine-dogs are trained to be vicious. So when Wasp meets this one peculiar ghost, well . . . it’s certainly not friendship at first sight. No. But for a lot of reasons she agrees to help him find a lost friend of his, another ghost, and the story unrolls from there.
I don’t want to say too much about it, and almost anything would be too much. I don’t want to describe the ghost, or his lost friend. Or the revelations about the world, or about Wasp herself. My advice is: avoid reviews. Even the ones that are kind of shying away from spoilers often say too much about this story, imo.
I will say this: the story, for all its disparate elements, hangs together very well. And the conclusions of the ghost’s personal story and of Wasp’s personal story are both very satisfying.
Beautiful and startling.
A breeze blew up from the water, smelling of copper, limes, and carrion. A lonely pale willow overhung the pond, and the breeze set its fronds clicking together. Closer, Wasp would find they weren’t made of leaves at all, but whiplike plaits of tiny bones.
Morning dew was damp against her back. The bite-wound in her arm was bound, as were the blistering fingers of her off-hand. Above, crouching on the willow, the sun looked like a ragged hole blown in a lavender sky. It cast no reflection in the water.
And again, later:
They were left facing down a long straight road, from which other long straight roads branched off. These roads were all exactly alike. Most of the buildings had no doors. Above, the crimson clouds stuttered across the sky. It was less like a city than a dream of a city, an idea of a city. Or a memory of a city so often replayed that the details had started to blur and fade, like an ink drawing of a city left out in the rain.
Okay, one last note. The author, Nicole Kornher-Stace, notes in the acknowledgements that this book was tough to place. She says: “I am endlessly grateful to Small Beer Press for taking a chance on Wasp and her specimen when everybody else told me they were unmarketable.”
Honestly, publishers, what is up with that? You know why Archivist Wasp is up for the Andre Norton Award and got a starred review from Kirkus and everybody’s putting it on their Best of 2015 lists? Because it’s a great book, that’s why. Unmarketable my foot. Two thumbs up for Small Beer Press, and I hope this book goes on and wins the Norton. If you’re nominating for the Hugo, I hope you have time to read this one and see what you think.
My Hugo nomination list is now:
Almost for sure:
In the Country of Ice Cream Star
Silver on the Road
And I think Uprooted is a shoo-in based on its massive number of reviews on Goodreads, so at the moment, that’s the one that I’m leaning toward dropping off my personal nomination list.
2015 titles I would still like to read before nominations close:
Sorcerer to the Crown
Walk on Earth a Stranger
The Just City.
I don’t know how many of those I will get to. I have both Updraft and Carry On on my Kindle, the others as samples. If you’ve read anything you think should go on the top of my urgent must-read-immediately list, drop it in the comments and I’ll try to get to it.