Archives in Fiction: Archivist Wasp
Wasp's job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist.
As far as intriguing premises go, Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace certainly caught my attention. There's a lot to unpack in the first book of her post-apocalyptic saga and Kornher-Stace deserves all of the applause for the amount of world-building and myth-making accomplished. And while I'll admit it was the title that initially drew me in - seriously, I don't see Archivist in a lot book titles - by the end of the novel I was cheering Wasp on and rooting for her ruthless competence to win out, or, at the very least, to survive.
And So The Plot Goeth:
Wasp is desperate to abandon her lonely ghost-hunting life. She is the chosen of Catchkeep, her village's bear-like goddess, tasked with hunting ghosts, catching them, learning as much as possible about the world of Before, and disposing of them. But she is also at the mercy of the Catchkeep-priest, a foul man who lords himself over Wasp and the potential upstarts, one of whom will eventually defeat her and assume the position of Archivist.
When she meets the ghost of a supersoldier from the distant past, however, she strikes a bargain to find his dead partner in the underworld in exchange for the chance to survive away from her village and the Catchkeep-priest. Thus begins a journey of discovery for Wasp as an archivist and as a denizen of the world directly affected by the actions of this ghost and the pre-apocalyptic world.
What is an Archivist in this World?
As mentioned above, there a few components that go into being the Archivist. Firstly, it is considered a divine calling determined by the presence of Catchkeep's mark that potential Archivists are born with. Secondly, the position is exclusively female. Girls born with the mark are taken in by the Catchkeep-priest (who is always a man) and trained to be upstarts. Their mission? Fight the current Archivist to the death. Thirdly, when not fighting to the death, the Archivist is required to catch ghosts that wander into the village or hunt them in the surrounding landscape. Once caught, the Archivist must attempt to learn as much as possible from ghosts about the pre-apocalyptic world, take notes, and dispose of the ghost.
Of course, the novel does its damnedest to upturn this entire explanation by the end, but I'm not about to spoil that.
What Does it All Mean?
Essentially, the role of Archivist is one of knowledge, isolation, and service mixed with blood and brutality. Wasp is both revered by her village and feared. She's outside their worldview, someone who was chosen by the gods and deals in matters beyond their comprehension. Offerings are left at her doorstep out of obligation, but for all intents and purposes she's a social pariah. There's no love found among the upstarts either. The relative few who might sympathize with her plight are the same girls preparing to kill her year after year under the Catchkeep-priest's tutelage. Fear and hate constantly surround her.
The reality is that the Archivist's relationship with knowledge is key to unlocking everything in Archivist Wasp. While it is the Archivist's job to learn from the ghosts, there is a distinct lack of learning and understanding from the world she inhabits and the people she protects. In lieu of a written history, a new mythology formed as a means of explaining the world as it exists. Archivists are the only ones given access to greater knowledge via notes from their predecessors, which gives them more power than they realize.
It's important to understand this aspect of Wasp and her job as Catchkeep's chosen because, other than her divine mark, the only thing that separates Wasp from a random villager is access to those notes. Wasp isn't alone in her ability to see ghosts - the villagers see them just fine - and her ability to dispose of them isn't magically or divinely based. It's a ritual made up of varying components that she learned to use from those same notes. Her job is to continue adding her own trials and errors to the pile for the Archivist who eventually bests her in combat.
There's an empathetic component to Wasp's story that provides an additional layer of complexity. She's not as bloodthirsty as other Archivists or upstarts. The book begins with her refusing to kill the last remaining upstart and the fallout of the supposed "weakness" she shows. Wasp takes no joy in destroying ghosts either, preferring to let them go of their own accord. It's those actions that inform the supersoldier ghost that she might actually help him where other Archivists refused. Her empathy allows her to learn from the ghost as more and more of his memories become exposed, filling in the gaps that could lead them to his long lost companion.