Review: Latchkey by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I received an ARC courtesy of NetGalley. Some spoilers for the first book in the series, Archivist Wasp, are included in the below review, so consider yourself forewarned!

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.

I can't believe how gorgeous that cover art is!
I mean, wow.

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. 

Latchkey will be coming out on July 10th, 2018.