The Archived & The Unbound: If death were a library, and librarians needed martial arts skills to keep the books in line
I need to start by saying that I find Schwab's adult novels absolutely stunning, and Vicious and A Darker Shade of Magic are among my all time favorites. With that in mind, I went into this series with absurdly high expectations, which likely impacted my enjoyment somewhat.
I read a lot of teen books. Sometimes they resonate with me and sometimes they don't, which is fine given I'm not the target demographic. These landed somewhere in between for me, neither hitting a sweet spot nor turning me off. They were well written, but I prefer the way Schwab writes in 3rd person to the 1st person perils of being stuck in Mackenzie's head continuously. Part of that is because Mackenzie is dealing with a lot of grief and trauma on top of being a realistically flawed teenager. 1st person was the right decision for the story, as Mackenzie agonizes over decisions and the past, and keeps boatloads of secrets, but it made for a frustrating read at times. One of my big annoyances as a reader is when plot propels forward because characters don't share information, and while it perfectly fit with Mackenzie's personality it still got on my nerves. Especially by the end of this, the second book in the series.
One of the strong points of the series is how adept Schwab is at character. She captures the dynamic of Mackenzie and her grieving family with heartbreaking detail. While it is true everyone grieves differently I found the portrayals of her withdrawn father, her overly chipper mother, and her own interior retreat very convincing. My heart hurt for these people, and I could relate to them. Her side characters are equally interesting - even when they only appear for a scene or two they feel round and alive. And then there is Wesley who, despite at a first glance feel terribly teen genre romancey, developed into a character I genuinely adored. (Every book of Schwab's I've read has had at least one character I find swoon worthy, which either says something about me, her writing, or all of the above. Regardless, my heart ends up stolen every time.)
If the first book is centered around grief then the second is equally centered around trauma. The focus of the story shifts somewhat away from the losses Mackenzie has suffered, and instead zeroes in on the traumas she has endured as a Keeper (primarily those that occur in the first book). Mackenzie's struggles with what I would classify as PTSD are as realistic and upsetting as her experiences with grief. Does this make for super fun reading? Honestly, not so much for me. However, I saw a lot of value in what Schwab was doing in this series.
Death, loss, trauma, and all the messy damage that can pile up in one's life in a short period of time, isn't just reserved for adulthood. I think it's important to cover subjects like these in teen lit, and Schwab does so with a deft hand. Perhaps my strongest critique is also my biggest endorsement: it's not a lot of fun living inside the head of someone going through these things. (As I can say from experience.) I'm glad Schwab wrote these books, and that I read them, just as I am also glad I now get to skip off into one of her fantasy novels and leave grief behind for a time.