Deconstructing Death: Victoria Schwab's The Archived

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Due to, perhaps, snow and icy roads and other nonsense things with which I'm currently living, UPS didn't deliver my pre-ordered copy of Victoria Schwab's The Archived until late yesterday, but it was certainly worth the wait! This has been a great month for new releases (Shades of Earth, Through the Ever Night, The Madman's Daughter, etc.), but so far Victoria's is my favorite. Here's the GoodReads description for those of you unfamiliar with the plot:

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often-violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.

Being a Keeper isn't just dangerous-it's a constant reminder of those Mac has lost. Da's death was hard enough, but now her little brother is gone too. Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.

In this haunting, richly imagined novel, Victoria Schwab reveals the thin lines between past and present, love and pain, trust and deceit, unbearable loss and hard-won redemption.

***A digression: Normally I refer to authors by their last names in reviews, but I had the privilege of meeting Victoria a couple of years ago at the Auburn Writers Conference, where I enrolled in two of her workshops--the two best workshops I've ever attended at a conference, BTW. Victoria is just such a lovely person--kind, generous, professional, prepared (it's amazing how often that doesn't seem to be the case in writing workshops), and hard-working. The kind of person you want to cheer for and who you hope receives every accolade she deserves. So that's why she's Victoria here, and not "Schwab." End digression.***

The Archived is Victoria's second novel, and I'm not going to lie--I enjoyed her first, The Near Witch, but I didn't love it. Still, I could see her potential to become not just a good writer, but a great one. If I'm remembering correctly, in one of her workshops Victoria mentioned that she originally wanted to be a poet, and you could see that in The Near Witch, in her elegant prose and precise word choice. But in The Archived, Victoria elevates her poetic language to another level. I'm not exaggerating when I say it is one of the most beautifully written YA books I've read in quite some time. Every sentence is carefully crafted. Her verbs sings. Her metaphors are original and interesting. (At one point she describes a storm dragging "its stomach over the city," and I thought Yes. Wow. And, of course, Why didn't I think of that?) It's always delightful to find an author who values language as much as plot, dialogue, and character, but the good news is, Victoria also values all of those things!

Although it takes a little while for the plot to really get moving (Victoria has a lot of world-building to do first, since her settings and concept are so original), once it does, the mystery and danger of the Narrows is thrilling. Many of the images conjured are haunting (but not too frightening), and the world she has built lingers long after the book is over. (Although I just finished the entire book, I read the first hundred pages on NetGalley back in the fall, and I was surprised that I still remembered so many of her descriptions months and dozens of books later.) Some of the revelations along the way seem a little obvious, but most are surprising, which is difficult to accomplish these days, when astute readers have learned to expect the unexpected.

Victoria's characters are also well-constructed. MC Mackenzie and her family have recently suffered the loss of her little brother, Ben, and their grief and denial is handled with such empathy, compassion, and clarity. I'm not much of a crier when it comes to books (something to do with the fact that Florence + the Machine doesn't accompany them), but I teared up twice when reading The Archived. Here's the first one, when Mac is thinking back to the morning Ben died:
I walked with him, all the way to the corner of Lincoln and Smith like always, and he drew a stick-figure Ben on my hand like always and I drew a stick-figure Mac on his like always and he told me it didn't even look like a human being and I told him it wasn't and he told me I was weird and I told him he was late for school.
I can see the black scribble on the back of his hand through the white sheet.
Seriously? Oh my God. The tears. Ben isn't even alive when the book begins, yet he lives on every page. He is one of the most fully realized characters in the book. I can see him even more clearly than Mackenzie, perhaps because children just tend to be easier to see and understand than adults and teenagers, and also because Mackenzie is still a little bit of a mystery to me, despite spending 300+ pages in her head. I think that's intentional, though. Mackenzie is a bit more difficult to see clearly because I think she has a hard time seeing herself. (Deep, I know.) Sometimes she does things that seem strange or that are frustrating, but I think they are only strange and frustrating to us because Mac doesn't acknowledge why she does these things. (Although we can figure it out based on how other characters respond.) She doesn't think as much about reasons and consequences as we might because it's hard enough for her to keep her entire world from crumbling (sometimes literally) without adding in guilt and repercussions. Oh, and there's also a boy, Wesley Ayers, who reminds me of a nicer, goth version of Mara Dyer's Noah, so that always complicates things (in the best way possible).

In the end, The Archived is a paranormal thriller, it's a fantasy, it's a mystery. But more importantly, it's a beautifully written story about how people, young and old, deal with death and loss, and how those we lose never really leave us. I'll be waiting (impatiently) for the sequel.


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