Archives in Fiction: The Quantum Curators and the Fabergé Egg
This was a hard one. I'm not gonna lie, I struggled with this book. What initially started as a two-person book club between myself and my friend Rachel quickly turned into an on-going test of endurance. It's hard enough to read for pleasure what with the continued plague conditions and whatever's happening in my personal and professional lives, but reading this book actually made me regret my life choices so that should give you an idea as to why I dragged my feet through the process.
On paper, the premise of Eva St. John's The Quantum Curators and the Fabergé Egg sounds intriguing. Basically, on an alternate Earth - Alpha Earth - everything's great, global peace has been achieved, and dimension-hopping time travel is a thing done by a group called the Quantum Curators. Their mission is to gather the "unique and lost" items of Beta Earth - our Earth - and maintain the Beta timeline by removing said items and taking them to be preserved on Alpha Earth. The curators are equipped with futuristic tech and knowledge of the Beta timeline, which allows them to supposedly remain one step ahead of any challenges they might face.
In the case of this book, the curators, led by Neith Salah, are tasked with retrieving a newly discovered Fabergé egg before it can actually be discovered and announced to the world. Unfortunately, the mission goes anything but smooth and the only person left alive who knows the egg's whereabouts is Cambridge professor and volunteer archivist, Julius Strathclyde.
That's the simplest way of describing the plot without getting too bogged down in the pitfalls of this book. First, one of the problems early on is the shift in narrative voice from chapter to chapter. Each chapter changes between Neith and Julius as a means of covering as many aspects of the story as possible, which shouldn't be an issue except Neith's chapters are written in first person while Julius' chapters are written in third person. And even then, Julius' chapters occasionally shift focus from Julius to another character, sometimes mid-chapter, without preamble. It's a confusing editorial decision that just takes you out of the story as you try to figure out whose perspective you're following and when it changed.
Second, St. John puts a lot of effort into telling instead of showing. We're told, numerous times, how cool, smart, and awesome Neith is, but the narrative doesn't support any of it as Neith is constantly two-steps behind who could be generously referred to as the villain and is literally sucker punched during a fight while showing off. We're supposed to latch on to her ability to improvise and the courage under fire mentality that gets her through challenges, but given the amount of things that go wrong from the moment we're introduced to her, I have a hard time believing she deserves a leadership position as a curator. Julius doesn't come off much better. He's a walking trope of the aloof academic who doesn't realize he's hot. Believe me, they mention Julius is hot a lot. He also doesn't show much interest in the woman he's supposedly dating, but from the moment he meets Neith he has the sudden urge to impress her and feels things he'd never considered feeling.
Thirdly, the story is painstakingly predictable to the point that you're just waiting for the characters to catch up so we can all move on with our lives. St. John clearly wrote the book with a sequel in mind and in the works - The Quantum Curators and the Enemy Within - but she somehow manages to make the 288 page story feel extremely slow-paced before packing a lot into the last twenty pages that contains little resolution. We're left with more questions than answers and, I'm sorry, but I'm not interested enough to continue reading about characters I couldn't care less about.
Fourthly, remember how I mentioned that Julius was an archivist? Yeah, you probably don't because the book isn't concerned with it either. At the very least, it's paid work, though it's mentioned in such a way as to make you think Julius is just volunteering his time and expertise to help the poor souls who do archival work for a living instead of their side hustle. Also, he's a professor of religion and philosophy, so how does that lend any help to "researching provenance" in the archives? Also-also, does St. John understand what provenance means because I don't think she does.
St. John puts far more emphasis on Julius' work as a professor and researcher. Mentioning that he's a volunteer archivist is meant as an additional avenue for those particular professions and his skillset. We're never in the archives with Julius, nor does he really talk about his work in the archives with any emotional attachment, positive or negative. It's just a thing that he does to bolster his researcher background while giving him and Neith a bonding access point.
Fifthly, there are some shady ethics happening in this book and most of it's coming from the dealings of Alpha Earth. It takes an extraordinary amount of arrogance to appoint yourself not only the better Earth, but also the one more deserving of the lost and unique items Beta Earth contains. It's akin to dimensional grave robbing and the curators serve to perpetuate the imperialist attitude that the cultural artifacts of Beta Earth are better off in the mouseions of Alpha Earth. And yes, the irony is not lost on me with the imperialist origins and practices of modern archiving and museum collections, but I don't think St. John put that much thought into it beyond having a better Earth to look at our Earth condescendingly. If she did put the thought into it, then the narrative doesn't indicate any such notions.
Sixthly, the attitude of the curators towards Beta Earth is at best smug and at worst openly hostile, which carries over into issues of consent regarding the use of hallucinogens, truth serum, and memory manipulation. The curators are against causing or participating in the injuring or death of innocents, but they don't apply any of those same concerns to the psychological trauma they've likely inflicted on the people they cross paths with on Beta Earth.
Seventhly, did I mention Julius is supposed to be an archivist? I think there was also an egg of some sort. Whatever.
Please save yourself the time and headache that will emerge should you try to read this book. I can never get that time back and I don't have the luxury of dimension-hopping time travel devices. Worst. Earth. Ever.