I love this book. Can I just get that out there right up front?
Which is not to say I love its chances, but I’m still going to wax eloquent (or wax, anyway) in praise of its strengths.
This is a weird book from a small press. I’m not even sure if it’s widely available in bookstores, because in the past I’ve had trouble finding Small Beer stuff in brick and mortar shops. I bought the e-copy because it was on my radar as a fantasy novel (which is my primary non-YA reading indulgence); I wasn’t actually thinking about YA or awards at all. And then I read it, and I was just blown away.
Let’s start with a few basics: this is a genre-defying book with some killer world building. It’s got elements of post-apocalyptic, dystopic (they’re not the same!), mystery, and fantasy traditions; there’s also a really rich vein about religion and perception and power that bring this into literary fiction territory. And it’s reasonably pacy and exciting and definitely manages some serious feels at the end, plus a hefty dose of girl power.
What blew me away: World-building, thematic scope, kick-butt female characters, and the fact that there was no romance and yet this is the deepest love story I’ve ever read. The writing is also often lovely on a sentence level. Before I get into details, a note — I am going to give things away. And really, I’d rather no one reads this post at all than have you all ruin the book for yourselves by reading spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, go away now. I’ll still be here after, and then we can really talk.
World-building: Okay, so it’s sometime in the future — 400 plus years after a cataclysm has killed the world, in Wasp’s terms, and at least 600 years from our now (I’m guessing that the ghost and Foster’s world is anywhere from 200-500 years in our future, and it seems like their lifetime was pretty close to the end). Technology has largely ceased to exist, so that the setting feels almost medieval, although there are bits that seem otherwise — language, the Catchkeep priest’s salve. And there’s an entirely other religion and mythos, written over our same stars but with new stories and new meanings; Ursa Major has become Catchkeep, whose realm is the dead (there’s also Ember Girl and Carrion Boy, and I loved that their stories weave throughout — they are Wasp’s only guide for what friendship looks like, in some ways — but aren’t entirely made explicit, because for Wasp, whose head we are clearly in, these stories are so deeply known that explicit retelling would be ridiculous). And there are ghosts, faded remnants of the living. Wasp, like all the Archivists before her, has been raised by the Catchkeep priest and has killed other aspirants (Upstarts) to attain her position. She takes notes on the ghosts and then releases them with a knife that has Catchkeep’s constellation inset and somehow can kill ghosts; the tension between her job (she’s their version of a historian) and the way she got it (killing other girls) is a perfect metaphor for this f-ed up world. The magic just is — maybe something in the end of the world released it, maybe it just made it possible for people to see it, but it’s never explained although it’s so deeply tied to the fabric of this reality. And then there’s the underworld, equally vivid and totally inexplicable, but rendered with the same degree of detail and texture, and strangely familiar; Kornher-Stace taps into a lot of different mythologies to create her underworld and ends up with something that feels right and inevitable as a result.
(I found myself thinking about The Summer Prince after reading this, because both are set hundreds of years after the fall of our world and play with a lot of ideas and blend genres. Complaints like the one that the school in The Summer Prince seemed way too like school now cannot be leveled here; everything is different and often uncomfortably so. This is our planet, but it’s no longer our world.)
Admittedly, the village and the other human are not nearly as detailed. I think, given the very limited 3rd person narrative, that this makes sense; the village doesn’t matter to Wasp, because it’s sideways to her existence. And her existence is miserable and limiting; she’s almost entirely broken, with anger the only thing that fuels her; of course she doesn’t have a lot of thoughts that reflect on things outside that narrow scope of just trying to survive.
(I didn’t even mention character when I talked about what makes this one zing. Add that to the list of things to admire here. Wasp is prickly and terrible by necessity, but also has a kind of nobility and an absolutely indomitable spirit and it’s impossible not to sympathize with her and root for her. And the ghost and Foster, who we meet mostly through the ghost’s flashbacks, are very like Wasp, a deliberate parallel, and all three of them come across as startlingly dimensional, which is especially impressive when you consider that one is losing his memories and another is nothing but memories.)
Thematic scope: Friendship and power are probably the two that are most outstanding, and the way they intersect is amazing. That intersection plays out across the book: Wasp’s growth; the ghost’s struggles with his memories; Foster’s fight to maintain human relationships despite effectively being a bioengineered weapon (much like Wasp! Because parallels, again; they are twinned journeys and there’s a whole other thing happening there, with the knife and both of them learning friendship through their relationship with the ghost — which isn’t ever all totally explained, and maybe that’s magic and Catchkeep, or destiny, or just strange.) There’s also some interesting, not quite fully plumbed layering going on with Ember Girl and Carrion Boy and the way they are just a little bit like the ghost and Foster, which might make Wasp Catchkeep, which means that even if the priest is a fraud and the whole thing is a set up, it’s also real on another level. So the nature of belief, magic, and gods maybe is also another theme to point to. And then there’s the way blood speaks, and Wasp can read gain knowledge by reading ghost memories but only at the expense of her own life; knowledge as power and knowledge as danger are threads that surface again and again.
And did I mention that there are fierce girls all over this book, and they are named, while the men are not? (Although I did want the ghost to find his name again, and maybe he did, but not explicitly, and maybe its that his name doesn’t matter, because what matters is Foster and that with her, he can be whole again because that’s what friendship does.)
(I might be delving into the feels part of things, so I’ll stop myself there, but I have a lot I want to say about the ending and the invitation and I can’t wait to be in a conversation about this book instead of just spouting to maybe no one, given that I said go away if you haven’t read it yet…)
So now that I’ve gushed, why on earth would this NOT be a serious contender?
In fairness, there is an open, unanswered quality that I appreciated but that might rub some readers wrong. There are also places where Wasp used language, references, or metaphors that feel very now, but which I can’t believe would still make sense or be in common parlance in this future. I was willing to let it go as a reader, but especially on the second read they were definitely little spots of tension, taking me as reader away from the world. And the flashbacks… I was totally in when it came to the story within the story, but I could see it being a contentious discussion and I’m not sure it’s as smooth as it should be. Also, fantasy.
So in the end, I’m calling this a dark horse, assuming it even makes it onto the RealCommittee’s radar. I’m also calling this one of the best books of this year, flaws and all.
If you’re still with me, and you’ve read it, speak up!