Friday, May 3, 2013

THE ARCHIVED


Review of THE ARCHIVED by VICTORIA SCHWAB
(first in THE ARCHIVED series, review based on advance reading copy)
I bet it won't surprise you to say I have a thing for books, libraries, reading, etc. So I also have a thing for book-focused fiction, whether there's a bibliophile character, lots of people reading, a bookstore or library tied into the plot, or - my favorite - a book-related magic system. THE ARCHIVED falls into the latter category, using books as metaphors for death and afterlife. When someone dies, they become a History shelved in The Archive while people like sixteen-year-old Mac work capturing and returning Histories that awaken.

There's a slow build, though Schwab makes every moment enjoyable. As much as the first third feels far more world-building than plot focused with only a subtle tingling sense of something unusual. In fact, most of the story avoids a clear front and center conflict. Rather a handful of odd, suspicious, and problematic developments pop up in such a manner that you don't know where to watch for the explosion.

While slow, that first third's also very character-centric, always a big plus in my mind. I love Mac's character: self-destructive but understandable. As if the "library of the dead" premise isn't intriguing enough, Mac has lost not one but two of the most important people in her life: her grandfather (who handed this responsibility down to her) and her little brother. Obviously, those deaths make her Archive work much more personal. Through much of the book, Mac battles torn loyalties between her work and her brother, often asking senior staff members to let her sit by his History.

I found the writing superb, the kind that fades back rather than steals focus from the story. Only one minor element threw me out. At one point, Mac refers to her father as a ghost. I reeled from this twist only to realize a few paragraphs later that she meant a metaphorical ghost, someone figuratively drained of life and passion. Probably a metaphor that would do better in a book that didn't have real ghosts! Of course, I'm mostly mentioning this because that's the one word choice that distracted me.
As much as it fascinated me, the magic system wasn't quite as clear and defined as I wanted. Schwab takes the immersion approach of plopping the reader down into Mac's world and letting them pick up how things seem to work without any info dumps. However, I'm often willing to forgive the odd info dump if it tells me something I really want to know, especially if it's well-handled. (Dump has a negative connotation, but I do think info dumps can be well-written.) Even after finishing the book, I don't feel like I 100% grasp how The Archive and Histories, etc. work.

As I've said, Schwab layers and intertwines so many smaller conflicts that you don't know where to watch for the explosion...and there is indeed an explosive end when everything crashes together in an abruptly breathtaking pace and high stakes climax. I loved those dramatic chapters, but the story doesn't wrap up that well afterwards. It builds to a chaotic, crazy ending and then winds down far too fast from so much commotion. Also this is another first in a series that makes no mention of such fact. The end definitely reads as one piece in a greater story without much significant resolution. Nevertheless, I have high hopes for the rest of the series and can't read to read the next one!

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