I first read about Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace, at Rhapsody in Books, where Jill wrote a concise and accurate synopsis bound to lure me in, on account of its mention that Wasp’s job is trying to get information from ghosts (otherwise known as “necromancy”):
“This gripping story, set in a time far into the future, is about the latest girl to be marked as “Archivist” by the Catchkeep Priest. The Archivist is someone whose job is trapping the many ghosts that wander through the area, and trying to get information from them on who they were and what happened to the old world. After she is done interrogating them, she is supposed to “dispatch” them. She is trained to be brutal; she becomes Archivist only after killing other “upstarts” wanting the job.
But this is not at all a ‘ghost story.’ The ghosts provide a frame for the picture of life in this post-apocalyptic world, and eventually, answers about how it came about.”
I soon found that the story begins when Wasp finds a ghost who can communicate with her, a first not only in her own experience, but in the archival notes handed down over the past 400 years. Wasp has a list,
“worn and soiled from the hands of countless Archivists, of questions one was supposed to ask a ghost, if a ghost was ever found who could reply. Name of specimen. Age of specimen. Description of surrounding environment during specimen’s lifetime. Description of specimen’s life, work, family, friends, enemies. Does the specimen recognize other ghosts? How does the specimen decide where to appear in the living world? Where does it come from when it appears? Where does it go? How many found objects in the Waste can the specimen identify? Did the world die during the specimen’s lifetime? Place and manner of specimen’s death. Manner of the world’s death, if known, in as much detail as possible.”
As Jill’s synopsis notes, Wasp is not brutal by nature; in fact she jumps at the first chance to leave her life and the job she has to fight to keep, in order to stay alive. When the ghost who can talk offers her a device that he used to instantly heal her broken ankle, she thinks “what couldn’t she get in trade for this thing? It could keep her in real food and fresh water for years. It could buy her seeds and compost and planting soil, and she could feed herself for years to come.” The ghost asks her to come with him into the underworld to find another ghost, “a ghost I need to find,” he says.
Wasp has a tether to the world of the living as she enters the underworld, a place where she has to literally battle her fears and work to get rid of some of the deadweight that has been dragging her down. She explains to the ghost that
“for every upstart she had fought and killed, a large part of the dead girl’s hair was cut off and interwoven into Wasp’s. Three per year for three years….And some from the Archivist she had killed to get there. She explained how every year, after the fight, before she’d even recovered from her wounds, it all was unwoven, the new growth of her own hair trimmed, then everyone else’s plaited back in and glued where the plaits didn’t hold. How every year her head grew heavier, and if she were too successful for too long, the weight would blind her with migraines, slow her movements, level the field between her and the upstarts who would eventually tear her down.”
Wasp cuts off all of the hair, to leave it as part of an underworld bridge made out of things the dead have left: “from their pockets, from their coffins. From their mouths and eyes.” She thinks to herself that “she liked the idea of laying all those murdered girls down to rest here after carrying them through the upper world so long.”
Wasp has learned how to perform spells with blood and salt, to bind ghosts. She eventually figures out how to improvise a spell for finding a particular ghost, using some blood on a piece of paper carried by the ghost who has asked her help. As they travel through the underworld, fighting their way through obstacles, Wasp learns more of the ghost’s story, which is the story of the end of the technological world and the beginning of the subsistence existence that led to the Catchkeep religion and Wasp’s job as archivist.
The ghost tells Wasp “I need to talk to her. One last time” and Wasp thinks “Of course you do….You’re a ghost. You need answers. You need closure. You need them like the living need air to breathe. You think it’s just you, but from what I’ve seen, most of us die without getting either.
And maybe that’s all a ghost is, in the end. Regret, grown legs, gone walking.”
This is the first time in the story that the existence of ghosts in Wasp’s world is really addressed, and at last we understand why her job has been to destroy them. To put it less elegantly than it is gradually revealed by the story, a subsistence society can’t keep going if everyone is too weighed down by regret over how the world, with its myth and religion, came into being on the bones of a former, more technologically advanced, society.
This is not, as Jill’s synopsis notes, a ghost story. It is, however, a story in which a kind of necromancy pays. For Wasp–who turns out to have another name, Isabel–finding out about the past points her towards the future by helping her see how to free herself and the “upstarts” from superstition and ignorance. I’d say that’s an atypical reward for the use of necromancy.