Archivist Wasp was one of my favorite books of 2015 and up there for one of my favorite new fantasy titles, period. It was such a rough, raw book, the literary equivalent of a rebel yell, and not just because it was a debut. Furious and dreamlike and achingly emotional, it was everything I never knew I needed in a fantasy. Or maybe “phantasmagoria” is better, a rare word for a rare book–and one about ghosts, no less. I continually had the impression that Nicole Kornher-Stace had served up her heart on a platter, no apologies and no attempts to make it into anything other than what it was. Just the bloody reality of it.
Latchkey, the continuation of Isabel’s story, retains that sense of desperate reality in a slightly more conventional presentation. Kornher-Stace is more practiced, gets to the heart of things more quickly. The Archivist formerly known as Wasp, now Isabel, has overthrown the old order and established a kinder orthodoxy in the temple of Catchkeep. The doglike deity does not seem to object to Her daughters working together in a community, rather than being forced to fight and kill each other for status. Which is fortunate, since Isabel’s new philosophy is “sacrifice two to save one,” a defiant defense of life in contrast to past death.
Not all share her hard-won utopian dreams, however. An earthquake unleashes chaos into their carefully tailored world. At first, Isabel fears that the ghosts they have so carefully bound and banished will return, the protections breached. But something worse is on its way: a horde of living fanatics. The utterly fascinating and unique pantheon of Latchkey includes a deity named Carrion Boy, whose followers…well. It’s not pretty. And Kornher-Stace knows exactly how much to reveal and how much to leave to the imagination to make every little implication pack an emotional punch.
If this had a movie analog—which it really doesn’t, it’s so much its own book that it’s incomparable–it would be Mad Max: Fury Road. The wasteland, the sense of life on the brink, and the pursuit of ravening hordes…you’d think it would be closer to a zombie movie, but zombies are absolved of their destructive capabilities to the point that we don’t even think of them as cannibals, or as people themselves. The adherents of Carrion Boy are, theoretically, capable of reason and restraint that they actively choose to ignore. Fighting them and dealing with ghosts, all in a world ravaged by some kind of cataclysm, has all the hallmarks of another weird, perfect, feminist blockbuster.
I would give a great deal to see all the fights and ghosts and daring in Latchkey adapted to the screen. But this isn’t one of those books that feels too much like a summer movie, all action and dialogue. It has some weighty meditations on community and suffering, and Isabel’s voice is strong and clear throughout, her introspection just as important as her ability to use a knife. She’s not just an avatar of action sequences; she’s even more fully realized than in Archivist Wasp, because she grew up. I feel fortunate that we get to see this continuation of her story and the story of the world she inhabits, not a tragic dystopia but a place where even ghosts get to fight for their lives and the things that are worth living for.
Latchkey comes out July 10.