Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: THE ARCHIVED by Victoria Schwab

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.

FINALLY! I don't know if you guys remember, but I highlighted The Archived in a Wishlist Wednesday post waaaaay back in July of 2012. I was so excited that I went out and bought an Archived bookbag with swag. Since then, I have been waiting not-so-patiently to get my hands on a copy.

And while I wouldn't call The Archived the "best book evar!!!" or any such thing, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Though the story is narrated in the third person, interspersed are segments where MacKenzie talks to her Da (grandfather) and her dead brother Ben, recalling memories and important lessons. That's how we meet Da in the beginning, as Mackenzie talks to him and describes his "accent full of smoke."

That line I just quoted was the exact moment that I knew I was hooked. When I read about Da having an "accent full of smoke," I immediately thought of Louisiana. I don't know why. I don't know if it was because the first sentence on the page mentioned the South or what, but I just knew Da had a Louisiana accent, only to have it confirmed not a sentence later. When an author is capable of planting such vivid sensory information into my head on the first page, I know the rest of the book will be an awesome ride.

Mac's musings to Da and Ben were some of my favorite parts of the book. Through them we learn some choice tidbits about the Archive (the library where the dead are kept) and the Narrows (the creepy maze separating our world from the Archive) as well as watch Mac develop as a Keeper-in-training. We also are allowed our closest glimpse as Mac's inner workings. Da and Ben were the two people in the world that Mac was closest to. Da, as a fellow Keeper, was the only one who knew about the Archive, and Ben was her innocent, rambunctious little brother.

When Da dies from an unspecified illness and Ben is hit by a car, Mac is left virtually alone. Her father becomes a pale ghost of himself and her mother hides behind a too-bright smile and an almost manic compulsion to hop from one project to the next. Mrs. Bishop's latest project moves the family an hour away to the spooky Coronado, a hotel-turned-apartment complex where Mrs. Bishop hopes to open a coffee shop. There Mac meets a fellow Keeper, strikes a deal with an impossible History, and stumbles upon a mystery that threatens to erase the Archive itself.

I have never before in my life read a book that made me love a world so much and yet simultaneously tell me so little about that same world. According to Mac's Da, the world is divided into three parts. The natural world that everyone knows about is the Outer. Hidden away is the Archive, a vast, limitless library where the dead are kept. When a person dies, their likeness is put in a drawer in the Archive. This likeness is used as a vessel, within which are placed all of that person's memories - everything they have ever seen, done, and experienced in their life, from birth to death. In between the Outer and the Archive are the Narrows, a labyrinth system used to corral the Histories who wake themselves from their death-sleep.

Despite being spooky, dangerous, and totally off-limits, I would love to visit the Narrows and the Archive. I'm one of those naughty readers who rarely pays attention to descriptions of physical places, but Ms. Schwab must have worked her subliminal magic on me again, because I felt like I was there. I could see the registration desk at the Archive, feel the cramped quarters of the Narrows. Heck, I could even tell you what the echoes of my footsteps would sound like among the stacks! The Coronado, Mac's home in the Outer, was also impressively dilapidated and therefore awesome.

I devoured every detail we were given about the Archive and the system set up by those who work for it (Keepers, Crew, and Librarians). However, part of my hunger comes from the starvation diet we're put on. Mac is told very little, only enough to do her job, and we by extension are left in the dark. Part of the lack of information is a necessary plot device to keep Mac guessing and searching on her own, but I wish we had been given a little more substance. Still, I think my overwhelming love for Mac's world is a testament to Ms. Schwab's talent as a writer.

The plot itself is also a suspenseful delight. Rather than have one big task to tackle, Mac is simultaneously battling multiple catastrophes. From the overarching chaos that arrives when the Archive starts to crash to the smaller, more personal tragedies that unfold as Mac tries to deal with the death of her brother, the battering never stops. Literally. The injuries that girl sustains are impressive.

Oddly, I connected less to the characters than I thought I would. MacKenzie was a great protagonist - stubborn, standoffish, and caring - but she lost major points in my book by withholding key information from characters who could have helped her. It's harder to connect with a character when you're constantly yelling, "You stupid girl! Just SAY something!" Wesley and Roland (referred to in my head as Guyliner and Chucks) were also fun, though, once again, I wish I could have connected with them more. Despite his unusual appearance, Wesley didn't have the flair I had expected from him, and his entire family was oddly absent. At one point, the boy disappears for days and no mention is made of worried authority figures. (I will say, though, that I fully expect to love both characters more upon multiple rereadings.)

I'm purposely bringing up all these flaws for two reasons. 1) You need to know. 2) I'm hoping that the issues I mention will be ironed out in the sequel. I got a very Beka Cooperish vibe from the end of The Archived, and my wish is to see Mac progress from Keeper to Crew as Beka progressed from Pup to Dog. If Ms. Schwab can make the sequel progress in the same manner, I expect the rest of the series to be...

Points Added For: The world-building. Oh my gosh, the world-building. The entire construct of the Archive and the Narrows and the list, the use of keys, the atmosphere of the Coronado, Mac's ability to "read" things, her standoffishness, the heartbreaking portrayal of the Bishop family's grieving process, etc.

Points Subtracted For: Mac being such a stubborn idiot for not telling anyone everything she saw, Wesley's missing background.

Good For Fans Of: Spooky old houses, dead people terrorizing the living, kick-butt protagonists, Doctor Who.

Notes For Parents: Language, making out, death.

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