Some of the best (and worst) novels in speculative fiction stick to a basic, tried-and-true approach: Lay out the rules of your imaginary world, then throw your protagonist against those rules. Nicole Kornher-Stace does exactly this, winningly, in her latest novel, Archivist Wasp.
The book's main character, Wasp, is an Archivist — someone who hunts ghosts as part of her primitive society's efforts to scavenge information about its shrouded, cataclysmic history. Being an Archivist is a sacred calling, and a brutal one: Wasp is constantly challenged by upstarts who strive to usurp her position. It isn't a democratic process; it's trial by combat. To the death.
Kornher-Stace establishes the rules of her world very early on, but it's a ruse. Wielding a knife and the power to hunt the spirits of the dead, she seems like a fantasy hero operating in a fantasy world. Things aren't so tidy. After Wasp discovers a ghost whom she can miraculously communicate with, she's enlisted for a bizarre mission that tests the boundaries of everything she knows to be true. In exchange for what appears to be a piece of advanced technology, she must help the ghost find his lost soul mate in the afterworld, a nebulous realm that holds terrible secrets about why Wasp's world has mutated into the strange place that it is.
The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is the obvious inspiration for Archivist Wasp — particularly the whole premise of Wasp's journey into the bowels of the earth for the purpose of retrieving a damned love. Kornher-Stace uses this sturdy archetype as a template, but she subverts it left and right.
Rather than coasting on such a well-worn narrative, she constantly undermines what Wasp understands about her civilization, and her exalted role in it. When it comes to Archivists, she's a rarity: someone with empathy and compassion for the ghosts she's supposed to trap. As it turns out, she has good reason to, and her instincts guide her as logic begins to crumble around her.
That instability makes for an uneasy read, even as Kornher-Stace grounds her ever-morphing mystery in sharp, unadorned writing — not to mention an intriguing interplay between Wasp and the ghost she's come to both pity and admire.
Not all the book's choices are good ones, though. It's rife with flashbacks, seen through Wasp's eyes as she passively witnesses the events of the distant past — a clever technique, but one that saps much of Wasp's agency, leaving her a prone observer for large stretches of the story. And while the book's brevity and economy work well for the most part, it feels as though too much of Wasp's character, and her world, is glossed over or left naggingly blank — even for a novel that ruminates on the uncertainty of memory and history.
But when the secret behind the ghost's former life, and that of his companion, is finally uncovered, Kornher-Stace proves herself up to the task. It's a jarring yet satisfying reveal, one that fully justifies the obscuring of truth and arrangement of clues that leads up to it. It's also modestly, quietly profound. "We bring our own monsters with us" is a refrain in the book, and as pat as that statement sounds, it's not used glibly. With understated skill, Archivist Wasp twists myth, fantasy and science fiction into a resonant tale of erasure and absence — and an aching reminder that regaining what has been lost isn't always the answer.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.