Archives in Fiction: The Archived
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Mackenzie Bishop is 16. She and her family are still grieving the loss of her brother and they've just moved to the Coronado, a hotel turned apartment complex. Oh, and Mackenzie is a Keeper, an agent of the Archive tasked with returning lost souls, or "Histories" as they're called, before they can enter the realm of the living. Since moving to the Coronado there's been an uptick in Histories waking up and Mackenzie finds herself embroiled in a conspiracy that affects the dead and the living. Ya know, the usual teenage experience.
Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.
What seems on paper to be your run-of-the-mill "I see dead people" story becomes far more complex as Victoria Schwab (V.E. Schwab for you Darker Shade of Magic lovers) crafts a tale about grief, loss, and memory set around a secret institution where the souls of the dead rest within cataloged filing cabinets and drawers. The world-building is fantastic as Schwab lays out the three realms of this universe: the Outer (the living world), the Archive (where the Histories are kept), and the Narrow (the limbo of doors between the two). Keepers like Mackenzie hunt the Narrow for Histories when they manage to escape the Archive, making sure to get them through the right door. But there are other agents of the Archive. The Crew hunt Histories that enter the Outer and the Librarians maintain the Archive and assign escaped Histories to Keepers and Crew. There's actually a lot more to the ins and outs of the people serving the Archive, but I don't want to go into too many spoilers.
You'll notice that the highest position in the Archive is a Librarian, which highlights what is a constant gripe surrounding most pop culture representations of archives -- misused terminology. In this case, it doesn't make sense to call people who work within the Archive Librarians. They're archivists, plain and simple. The items they're charged with maintaining and protecting are, or were, people, which makes their value unique. Histories can't be duplicated and they can't be loaned to different branches for people to check out and/or research if they don't have a copy. Yet the narrative would have you believe that libraries and archives are synonymous given how the two are conflated. I'm unsure if this was done deliberately or if it was an editing note, but it's the one frustration I had while reading the book. Then again, it jumps out at me because I know the difference. Non-archivists probably don't, which feeds into the pool of misconceptions we constantly wade through.
Aside from this one quibble, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I was particularly drawn to the use of keys as the means of travelling between the Outer, Narrow, and Archive. Like archives in real life, it's all about access. Keepers, Crew, and Librarians all have keys that afford them varying levels of access to the Archive and power over the Histories. And, at a base level, all of them have the ability to access or psychically "read" the memories of objects, places, and people -- living or dead. A significant chunk of the plot centers on the ability to erase memories, which is stated to be a specific skill practiced only by Librarians. The higher up you are, the better your key, the more access and power you get.
If you plan on picking this one up, there;s a sequel, The Unbound that's worth your time as well.