Book Review: Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Archivist Wasp is a strange and beautiful story that still managed to be somewhat disappointing to me. I liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t love it the way I thought I would and I’m not sure exactly why except that I feel somewhat misled by an enormous amount of good reviews that were terribly vague about what this book is. At the same time, I do like that Archivist Wasp defies any neat genre categorization. It’s a book that is many things, but mostly it’s hard to describe without giving away the whole story. In any case, I’m not sure exactly what I expected from this book, but what I got wasn’t it, and I can’t say that my expectations were challenged or unsettled in any positive way. I just feel weirdly neutral about the whole thing.

After about a week of trying to figure out why this book just didn’t sit right with me, I think it’s largely because, while it’s a thematically strong work—dealing with issues of identity and choice and the ways in which people can be susceptible to bad ideas—there’s just not a whole lot of actual story. The whisper thin plot might have worked if Nicole Kornher-Stace made up for it with particularly beautiful prose or great characters or a good sense of the setting, but that’s not the case. Kornher-Stace’s prose is just workmanlike; Wasp is kind of a wonderful character, but she’s not enough to carry a whole novel; and the setting seems to be shooting for almost mythic—a journey through an underworld—but fails, and at the same time is a post-apocalyptic dystopia of sorts—but without any details to give it any specificity or to ground it in a plausible future.

It seems to be somewhat in vogue these days for authors to skirt the line between science fiction and fantasy, and genre-bending is a common buzzword of recent years that I’d heard used to describe Archivist Wasp. That may be the case, but to me it felt more noncommittal than purposeful in its failure to decide what it wanted to be. Wasp’s abilities seem to be mystical in nature, and this isn’t entirely at odds with a world that appears to have been shattered by a human-caused apocalypse, but there’s really no explanations for either of these things. Certainly, there isn’t nearly enough explanation given to even begin to explain how the world shifted from the one that produced the super soldiers whose ghosts Wasp interacts with to the world in which Wasp has been raised.

It’s not always necessary to explain this stuff, and sometimes it’s actually better if authors don’t bother—too many potentially good books have been ruined by over-explaining—but the society that Wasp is part of is so alien that it’s difficult to imagine how it happened at all. If I’m being very generous, I could say that this makes the book original, and it is, as far as that goes, but in the absence of any common genre tropes, it becomes the responsibility of the author to make sure that the reader has all the information they need to grok the book.

I suppose that in the end, though, it’s not so much that Archivist Wasp is hard to understand; it’s just deeply unsatisfying. While I can appreciate what I suspect is the author’s aversion to holding the reader’s hand, just a little more explanation would have gone a long way towards making this a much more enjoyable read.

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