Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Epic WTF-ery: A Book Review

I have led my poor book club down the path of this book that got such good reviews, I can't even.  I don't know where to begin.  Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace, came so highly recommended by the Book Smugglers, I threw it before my book club with confidence and encouraged their votes until it was our pick for the month.

Fortunately, it seems to have bothered me more than anyone else.  The writing was admittedly rocky, but some felt the story had a strong core.  And if you describe the plot, I suppose I can see how that might be true: Wasp is the Archivist of the goddess Catchkeep; feared and respected by her village, it is her job to record her interactions with the ghosts that are everywhere, and to banish them (I think? What happens to ghosts when she gets rid of them?). Once a year, the upstarts from the shrine get a chance to try to kill her and take her place as Archivist.  The Catchkeep-priest lords over all.  Good times.

She finds a ghost that can talk (which goes against the very nature of everything she's ever learned about ghosts, but she gets past that weirdly quickly) and asks for her help in finding his long-lost ghost-friend. She signs on because she kind of hates her life, and they take a journey to the underworld, which is like a long, weird dream sequence where doors open up into different places and you run into people all out of context and big dogs try to kill you and you just have a feeling about something.

I hate dream sequences.  This is a fact about me, my own pet peeve and peculiarity, but a really consistent one.  I like dreaming; I hate reading about dreams. So the fact that about half this book runs on dream logic takes a big chunk out of my enjoyment from the get-go.

Part of being a ghost is losing your memory, so the ghost she's following around doesn't have much to go on.  But they discover that Wasp can see some ghost memories (with her magic Archivist knife, for some reason), so she fills in the gaps of his past--a high-tech society with supersoldiers fighting a war.  So we have two dystopias--Wasp's distant future of crumbling hardscrabble village life, and the ghost's our-future/Wasp's-past of high tech war. 

So, I have a million questions, and I don't necessarily believe the author could answer them if I had her here to ask.  Like, why are there no ghosts in the memories of the past, if they're just around everywhere now? Is the afterlife really just wandering around for eternity, either on earth or in the ghost world, until you dissolve or someone does....whatever it's Wasp's job to do? That last memory trip--did the ghost go with her into it? Was he himself, or a bystander? How did he talk to both the woman and Wasp in the same interaction? How did that relived memory have any outcome in the real world?

Also, wouldn't it have been SO MUCH EASIER to keep track of everything if the ghost had had a name--or even just a narrative descriptor that separated memory-him from ghost-him?  And how did the tools that he carried from before he died have any effect on living flesh? And how come the prospect of just living in the world seems like a curse until later it just isn't?

Okay, that last one might make psychological sense, if I think about it.  But the thing is, I don't trust the author at all enough to believe that any connection I see is part of what she's trying to do with the story.  It's too sloppy--on a micro level (antecedents that I can't pair with their nouns) and a macro level (literally what happened in that last memory scene?).  Kelly made a great point in our meeting about the parallels between Wasp and the ghost, and my first reaction was "I don't think so." She's right, all those signs are there, some even pointed to deliberately.  But the story is just so sloppy that I had trouble perceiving the patterns even when looking for them.

Oh, also?  That house that is described as "abandoned" at the end of the book?  It was being burned down 200 pages earlier.  If I have to do this for you, there is a failure here.

There was some good stuff--I liked Foster; I liked the creepy apocalyptic landscape of Wasp's time (which turns all green and rosy at the end--is there landscaping version of the pathetic fallacy?); I really liked the mythology around Catchkeep and the other gods.  I just wish that even those neat parts had fit together better, felt more organic, or, god help me, made a lick of sense.

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