Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace (Small Beer/Big Mouth House, 978-1618730978, 256 pp, tp, $14.00) May 2015.Nicole Kornher-Stace’s new novel Archivist Wasp is an utterly beguiling and intense book on bravery for teens. Set in a post-technological world that harkens back to the Middle Ages, the story is steeped in myth and fear with levels of brutality that put The Hunger Games to shame. It is also utterly unique and further evidence of just how quietly significant Small Beer Press, and its YA imprint Big Mouth House, have become.
As the determined and desperate protagonist, Wasp is an aspirational character; the sort of gutsy truthseeker who finds a welcome home in young adult fiction. Echoing everything from Greek myth to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kurt Russell’s Sgt. Todd, Wasp was chosen at birth by the celestial goddess Catchkeeper to capture and banish ghosts for the local population. Her other task is the source of her title: Wasp must maintain and update a 400-year-old archive of ghostly knowledge. These notebooks are the only guides she has to her job, and provide fleeting glimpses into the lives of previous archivists.
Wasp is both respected and reviled by the villagers, someone they need but have no interest in befriending. Her daily life is controlled by the Catchkeep-priest who took her from her parents when the telltale mark of her trade was revealed on her face as a baby. The Catchkeep-priest controls all of the child ‘‘upstarts’’, and once a year hosts the competition where the current archivist must individually face three upstart challengers in fights to the death. He hates Wasp and his joy is found in tormenting her, and her potential replacements, while he revels in his power over them and the prestige it gives him.
In her dreary, pain-filled existence, (and the opening pages are particularly bleak), Wasp goes about her job with little indication that life will change. One day she will make a mistake and find her death, no one will mourn her and only if her records prove to be useful will the next archivist even care that she ever existed. And then she meets a ghost like no other and everything – everything – changes.
The ghost was captured and is supposed to be banished. As Wasp prepares to do so, she notes the ghost has some uniquely strong tendencies – is more here than most others – and in studying this idiosyncrasy opens herself up to attack. The ghost challenges her and then, breaking all known rules governing his kind, speaks to her. He needs her help to find his now dead partner that she cannot refuse.
Into the underworld the duo travel. The ghost, a supersoldier who lived in the pre-apocalyptic time, can remember the woman whose back he guarded as she guarded his own, but cannot recall how or where she died. Frustrated by his fractured memory, he is driven by an internal demand to find her, convinced he must save her in death as he did not in life.
He needs Wasp to hunt his friend and Wasp needs the ghost to give her his tool that will serve as a technological breakthrough in her own world. If she can survive the underworld, she might be able to buy her way to freedom and independence and find another life. The longer she considers this, the more she questions the harsh rules under which she has been living, an example of which is given in one dramatic passage as she cuts her hair:
She explained how every year, after the fight, before she’d even recovered from her wounds, it all was unwoven, the new growth of her own hair trimmed, then everyone else’s plaited back in and glued where the plaits didn’t hold. How every year her head grew heavier, and if she were too successful for too long, the weight would blind her with migraines, slow her movements, level the field between her and the upstarts who would eventually tear her down.
‘‘Why?’’ asked the ghost.
‘‘It’s how it’s always been,’’ said Wasp. Then, realizing how weak this answer must sound, realizing she had not better answer to give, started cutting faster.
Kornher-Stace’s effectively shows that even at her most beaten-down, Wasp is never a weak character. She endures not only the rules of the Catchkeep society but further, through her journey, exposes a similar set of controlling tenets that affected the ghost and his partner. Archivist Wasp is thus a tale of a protagonist able to find truth and harness it for the greater good of all those around her, living and dead. Bloodied and battered, Wasp is a Joan of Arc for the 21st-century teen; someone to believe in with all their hearts and souls. Challenge those who would deny you a future, she and the ghost demand, challenge everyone who claims they own you more than you own yourself.