I was very excited about the premise of Nicole Kornher-Stace’s debut novel Archivist Wasp. In the who-knows-how-distant future, civilization has been destroyed and humans are living in feudal conditions. Female infants chosen by the Goddess herself are taken from their parents and trained by the Catchkeep Priest to be Archivists, warriors who speak to the dead in an attempt to discover just how humanity failed and why the earth’s inhabitants are left to scrounge for food, shelter and their very survival. But there can only be one Archivist. It is not enough to fight your way to the job, you must fight to the death and continue to conquer your rivals every year until you are too worn down, fatigued, or battered and a new Archivist stands on your corpse to take your place.
Sounds pretty bad-ass, right? And for the first third of this book, it is. Archivist Wasp, named for her fighting style, has defended her hard won title for the third year in a row as our story begins. Three victories means the blood of three would-be Archivists on Wasp’s hands. Wasp barely won her latest challenge and must limp to her rundown, solitary cabin to lick her wounds alone. Despite the fact Wasp is chosen by the Goddess to serve her people, she is not loved by the villagers who covet Wasp’s skills in coaxing the secrets from the dead but are repulsed by her savage nature. Wasp is tired of the endless cycle of killing under the direction of the Catchkeep Priest who treats Wasp not as a sacred warrior, but a tool to be used and discarded when her skills have dulled. So when Wasp meets a ghost who proposes an unlikely alliance, Wasp figures it can’t be worse than the job she already has. The deal is that Wasp accompanies the ghost of a long dead solider to the Underworld to find a lost friend and in exchange the ghost will give Wasp a way to finally break free of her life as Archivist.
Unfortunately, a trip to the underworld isn’t as interesting as it sounds. Instead of the intense imagery and action that such a journey invokes, hell is quite dull. Dull and repetitive. The way Wasp helps the ghost find his lost companion is by using her abilities to see flashbacks of the ghost’s life. Flashback after flashback. Rather than the post-apocalyptic dystopian novel where Wasp must fight for her humanity and very survival, the story slips into a whodunnit starring a nameless ghost and his long lost side-kick where you don’t care about the victim or the crime. Eventually the story does get back on track when the focus returns to Wasp and the ending is enjoyable, but with such a long detour something is lost on the way.
Archivist Wasp is an ambitious attempt to reimagine the dystopian genre, ultimately it misses the mark for me. The premise is unique and would make a great novella but too much of the book is distracted by the story within a story that turns Wasp into a supporting character rather than leading role. The narrative that Kornher-Stace failed to tell is that of Wasp herself- how her world came to be and what her life was like immediately before and after we met her. If there is a sequel (and rumor has it there will be) let’s hope the focus remains firmly on our Archivist.