Latchkey

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 May 2018

Member Reviews

Archivist Wasp was one of my favourite books of 2015, so I was pretty excited to read Latchkey. I thought that the first book was complete as it was, but I was happy for more.

I was worried that I might have forgotten some of the details, but Latchkey covers most of the main points and leads the reader through in the course of the story, so I felt caught up without it feeling at all repetitive. 

I really like Kornher-Stace's writing. She has a nice pace which makes Latchkey easy to read, with great forward momentum throughout most of the book. What I missed here a little was a bit of that feeling of the deeply personal that Archivist Wasp delivered. But I think that is probably a natural consequence of the story. The first book was a katabasis, both figuratively and literally, and Latchkey is the aftermath. The main character, Isabel, emerged from her journey a changed person who then changed her world. In the aftermath, she has a new landscape to navigate, and, if not exactly friends to consider, people she more or less trusts as much as she is able to and feels some shared responsibility with and for.

The most compelling relationship though, the one I had the most desire to learn more about from the last book, is between Isabel and the still unnamed ghost soldier. There is so much there, so much that remained unspoken, and in Latchkey that tension remains and continues. Part of me wanted more, part of me understands why this is all I get. The tension for the reader therefore remains, but feels balanced and true to the characters.

Overall, even though I didn't love this quite as much as Archivist Wasp, it still feels like a satisfying and important part of the overall story.  The world created here is so unique, the characters so interesting, and the writing so compelling to read, that I really do hope there is another book forthcoming.
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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 it's 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.
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I am of two minds about Latchkey - I really love the characters and the author's style of writing and I was happy to revisit them in this book, but at the same time I thought Archivist Wasp was a perfectly complete story that didn't need any sequels, and I think so even more strongly now. I hate to say it, but Latchkey seems to me wholly unnecessary.

The story takes place 3 years after the events of Archivist Wasp. Isabel (Wasp) and her fellow upstarts live peacefully enough free of the Catchkeep-priest. But after an earthquake, their town is attacked by a band of people whose village was destroyed in the disaster. A part of the plan to defend their place is for Isabel to hide the kids of the town underground, in the tunnels of Before-time. There she comes face to face not only with the ghost and Foster, but other victims of the Latchkey project, and they are not peaceful ghosts. 

While Archivist Wasp was a self-contained, aching tale of reclaiming selfhood, Latchkey is more of an adventure story, a Mad Max/X-Men with ghosts mashup, which is not a bad thing at all. I happen to think this cross-genre idea was realized by Kornher-Stace very well in Archivist Wasp. Here, however, the story doesn't have the same strength. What we learn about Latchkey kids is nothing shocking that we didn't anticipate from the glimpses of the project in the previous book. Mainly, the blanks are filled in that didn't need to be filled in.

Latchkey ends on a cliff-hanger, but as much as I love the ghost and Foster, I don't think I need to know more about them. This is an odd case when the first book in a series is so great and so perfect, that everything that follows, even if objectively good, can't quite live up to it.
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I should probably tell you, first of all, that I don’t usually go for dystopian fantasy, mainly because I just don’t like cynical books about bad things happening endlessly with no hope for anything better, which is too often characteristic of the genre. It should then tell you something when I say I absolutely love this series.

The first installment, Archivist Wasp, which came out in 2015, was a wonderfully original cross-genre surreal quest through the underworld, or “ghost place,” where our titular character Wasp teams up with the ghost of a long dead super-soldier in order to find his missing companion (also a ghost, in case that wasn’t clear). It had a good ending: Wasp topples the centuries long oppressive religious order that has lead to a whole lot of young women’s deaths, and makes the bittersweet choice to pick life, and her fellow young women, above the dead companions she’s come to care for. And with things having wrapped up the way they did, I honestly wasn’t sure how a sequel could capture the same wonderfully realized atmosphere and tension of the first book.

But Latchkey did not disappoint. Set three years after the end of Archivist Wasp, Wasp has renamed herself Isabel, and has built a fragile home with her fellows. They trade with nearby towns, they learn self defense, they have chore rotations, and have just generally put a lot of effort into building a life very different from the violent one they were raised for. But then, when a raiding party is spotted heading their way, everything changes. Seeking refuge in the underground tunnels of a centuries, likely millenia, old facility, remnants of a long dead civilization from Before, Isabel is soon reunited with the ghost who seems to understand her better than anyone else, as the past and present collide once more. 

This story is marvelously atmospheric: the endless, oppressive tunnels, ghosts in various stages of decay around every corner, and the thinnest of separations between the world Isabel travels and the memories of those long dead. I love the deep bond between Isabel and the ghost (we never know his name), and the fact it’s bonds of friendship and loyalty, not romance, that takes center stage throughout.  I’m also endlessly fascinated by everything we continue to learn about the Before, about the super-soldier project and how it ended, and about what exactly the super-powered ghosts of those soldiers are capable of. There are clues in this book that have me VERY eager to learn more in coming installments…

If I have any criticisms at all, it’s that both the beginning and ending drag a little: in the beginning it felt pretty fitting, as we learn about what Isabel’s life has become in the interim, but I do feel like the ending could have been wrapped up a bit quicker and to greater effect. But the majority of the book was so deeply engrossing, fast-paced and sometimes a little bit horrifying, so if the ending wasn’t perfect, the whole was still so good I can easily forgive that.

This is an excellent series, setting itself apart both by it’s failure to stick to any one genre and in telling a story that is enduringly optimistic in a wasteland of a world filled with the ghosts--both literal and figurative--of what came before. I cannot wait to see what the author does next.
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First thing--this is a sequel and you should read the first book before picking this up. It's good, I promise. There's a lot of character and worldbuilding you'd be missing out on, and while Latchkey doesn't pick up exactly where Archivist Wasp left off, this story is a clear continuation of what came before (vs something episodic like the Dresden Files). (Which, by the way, I find pretty impressive--the first wraps up neatly enough to stand alone, though I am thrilled to pieces to have a sequel.)

But rest assured you're getting the same post-apocalypse scifi ghost story witch's brew as the first time around. 

Wasp, now going by Isabel, has managed an uneasy truce between Catchkeep's traumatized former acolytes and the town of Sweetwater even as she tries to recover from her long journey through the underworld. But the death of the high priest is a signal that perhaps the goddess no longer favors Sweetwater, that she has abandoned them for their blasphemy and the town is ripe for the picking. As raiders approach, the town looks to Isabel as Archivist to divine Catchkeep's will, to come up with a way to keep them safe--do they retreat into the barren wastes to risk starvation, or stay and risk a slaughter? And all the while Isabel has to deal with the consequences of her near-death experiences, of the strange hold that the underworld has on her and of her mysterious connection to Catherine Foster, spectral super-soldier extraordinaire. 

I read this for free through Netgalley, though I would have bought it anyway on the strength of the first. I mean, if you'll notice, I read it in two days to the detriment of my beauty sleep. I'm also 100% going to buy the third book--do you hear me, Mythic Delirium? I will buy a third book!
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I was highly anticipating this sequel and it did not disappoint. The first half was a bit slow, but as soon as old characters make a presence, I started getting into the story more. Throughout this book, I stayed on the edge of my seat. I didn't know who was going to die or live and figuring out the mystery of the Latchkey project was great. I'd love a book three, because I still have so many questions.
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Actual rating: 3.5/5

The Latchkey continues the story began in Archivist Wasp. Isabel, once known as Wasp, has become the leader of the upstarts. Adjustment to a new way of life isn't easy, especially that Sweetwater inhabitants have mixed feeling about whole archivists and ghosts business. 

When ruthless raiders from the Waste and a deadly force from the Before-time that awaits in long-hidden tunnels appear, things get extremely dangerous for all. To save ex-upstarts and Sweetwater, Isabel will have to unlock the secrets of the twisted experimental program from centuries gone. Isabel isn't alone. She's accompanied by her friendly ghosts that also happen to be killing machines easily excited by human blood.

The world presented in Latchkey is brutal. The post-apocalyptic scenery and decaying society are portrayed in a suggestive, sometimes uncomfortable way. It seems that only history buried deep in the tunnels can help to discover a solution that will save others. 

It’s a bigger and longer book than Archivist Wasp. There are more characters, more action scenes, more depth and more intriguing questions finally answered. The story focuses on Ghost, Foster, and Isabel, but upstarts, especially a fierce young lady called Sairy get nice exposition as well. Before you get attached to someone bare in mind that this time Nicole Kornher-Stacey holds no punches. Things get painful, and we experience quite a lot of trauma (both in the past and in the present).

Characters are portrayed in a suggestive, layered way. Despite this, I have a problem with them. I just can't relate to Isabel, and lack of emotional engagement in the story decreased my reading pleasure. It's subjective. I can see other readers rooting actively for her.

Pacing is uneven. At times the story moves too fast, at times too slow (especially in the beginning). There were lots of tedious bits, and portions of text that didn't move the plot forward. 

The writing is dense and good. On the other hand, I must confess I find some of the similes and stylistic choices awkward (although they'll be poetic to others). Here are two examples:

She barely registered straightening, sheathing her sword, breaking into a dead run, plowing into that knot of raiders like a meteor. She was moving out of time with the living world, half here half gone, and they didn’t even see her coming until she was already among them and they were falling around her like autumn leaves.


I'm not sure if it's intended as a sharp contrast between abruptness of the attack and mayhem and serene, slow-motion falling autumn leaves? I know that it doesn't work for me.

Chooser knew what she did to the next two guards, but it was too fast for Isabel to figure out. Only that one of them went down with the whole side of his skull caved in like a stomped windfall plum, and the other one was sliding on her own red trail down the rear wall of the house across the road.


Overall, I enjoyed this story, although I'm not in love with it. Some parts were brilliant and enthralling while other not so much. As the book felt uneven for me, I'll set the score to 3.5 shining stars.
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