The Archived by Victoria Schwab. Copyright 2013. Young Adult Fiction. ISBN 1423157311.
The memories of the dead are stored in a strange library called the Archive, only accessible to specially trained persons through hidden doors in our world. Sometimes these Histories, as they’re called, wake up and escape the Archive. As a Keeper, it is 16-year-old Mackenzie Bishop’s job to send them back to the care of the Librarians, and she has her hands more than full when she and her family move into the Coronado: an old hotel-turned-apartment building that’s full of forgotten and unfinished stories.
Style and Technique:
The Archived immediately draws you in with a new take on the afterlife, a subject that’s held humanity’s attention for millennia. However, although the book starts strong, it begins to give off the impression that Schwab hasn’t fully fleshed out her world. The Why of the Archive itself isn’t explained: What is its purpose? Who’s the ultimate authority behind it? There is a potential for answers to these questions later in the series, as this is only the first book, but more information on how it works would do much to draw readers into the world and add to its believability factor.
Schwab’s grasp of setting is sometimes good and sometimes lacking. Our main character seems to travel between three different locations: the Archive, the Narrows, and the Coronado. Her description of the Narrows, the dimension in between our world and the Archive, is properly eerie and cold, and the Archive itself is quite interesting: Stacks and stacks of shelves and drawers running back as far as the eye can see. However, where the Archive and the Narrows are the better-described settings, the Coronado and its different sections seem blank, generic, and sometimes confusing in contrast.
Schwab writes in a very “present” tense—that is, both in present tense as we are used to thinking of it, and also in a way that makes you feel as though you’re with Mackenzie as she wanders the Coronado. Her portrayal of the underlying mystery throughout the book is engaging and intriguing, and she’s left plenty of loose ends to keep readers interested in waiting for the second installment.
Mackenzie Bishop is our main character, a savvy sixteen-year-old who seems smarter and more aware than your average protagonist. She often picks up on things that authors of other books might illogically cause their characters to overlook. This trait is important to her character, as Mackenzie is a Keeper: one of those tasked with making sure the woken Histories don’t escape from the Narrows. In order to fill this position adequately, Mackenzie must be able to keep it separate from her real life—and in order to do that, she must be a very good liar. And she is.
However, for all the potential Mackenzie has, she herself seems to be rather flat, and remains static (rather than dynamic) throughout the book. Beyond the Keeper and the liar, not much about her stands out. She has no hobbies, she has no life outside of her job (such as it is, there is no mention of whether Keepers or other maintainers of the Archive are paid). And yet, despite this seeming lack of anything else to do, Mackenzie doesn’t seem to have any problem putting off returning the Histories she is assigned. This is unfortunate, as the premise is a fantastic opportunity to really build up the tension throughout the book. Instead, the book moves along at a brisk-but-peaceful walk with no sense of urgency until the last third of the story.
And then there is Wesley, a strange, self-obsessed boy who visits family at the Coronado and seems to keep running into people. Schwab tries to be coy with this character, dropping “hints” about who he is in Mackenzie’s encounters with him. Regrettably, Wesley’s character seems to barely move beyond “vain” and “guyliner.” Furthermore, although Schwab is to be applauded for not allowing the romance subplot of the book to become more than a subplot (a pitfall that ensnares many young adult authors), the romantic tension, where there is any, is typical and hardly fresh.
Strangely enough, it’s the secondary characters that Schwab does well with. These characters mostly populate the Narrows and the Archive (and, consequentially, are too spoilery to get too deep into description) and have picked up the habits and mannerisms of three-dimensional characters. There’s Roland, a Librarian in the Archive (strikingly reminiscent of David Tennant’s rendition of the Tenth Doctor), and Owen, an oddly sane boy stuck in the Narrows with a lot of loose ends to tie up. Both of these characters interest the reader in ways that other characters fall short.
Although Schwab’s secondary characters are worthy, she has unfortunately fallen into the habit of making minor characters little more than vehicles for the plot. Mackenzie’s parents are almost painfully cliché and dim-witted, Mackenzie’s best friend apparently exists only for Mackenzie to rehash what living in the Coronado is like. The other, few residents of the Coronado seem to exist only to give information to Mackenzie, and serve no other purpose. While it could be argued that that’s what minor characters are for, authors should make an attempt to give their minor characters lives that don’t revolve around the protagonist.
Victoria Schwab’s The Archived is an original, interesting pick that reads well at first look, but begins to fray at the edges upon further scrutiny. 3 out of 5 stars.
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