Review of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Title: The Rook
Author: 
Daniel O’Malley
Published: 
11 January 2012
Publisher:
 Little, Brown & Company, a division of The Hatchette Book Group
Genre:
science fantasy, mystery, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

I was unsure about this at first, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted :)

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in the rain without a shred of memory. Around her are dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves. In her coat pocket is a letter from herself, written before her memory was wiped. The letter gives her some basic information, like what her name is and how to pronounce it (“Miff-unee” rhyming with Tiffany), as well as a few instructions. The first Myfanwy (from now on I’ll refer to this version of Myfanwy as ‘Thomas’) was warned that someone would consume her memories, so she made meticulous preparations for the person who would wake up in her body.

Thomas offers Myfanwy two options. She can change her name, flee the country, and live out the rest of her days drinking cocktails on some sunny beach. Or, she can stay, pretend to be Thomas and uncover the conspiracy that put her in this situation. Myfanwy is all for running away, but another attack from latex-gloved assassins gives her the determination to take the more dangerous option. To help her, Thomas wrote a series of numbered letters to Myfanwy, and put together a detailed research file containing the most important information for impersonating her previous self. Because if Myfanwy is going to find out what happened to her and why, she’s going to have to go back to  her extremely complex and demanding job and act like nothing is wrong.

As it turns out, Myfanwy Thomas is a Rook – one of the highest ranking members in a powerful secret organisation called The Checquy (pronounced “Sheck-Eh” or perhaps ‘Sheck-Ay’). The Checquy protects Britain from its many supernatural threats, and to do so it recruits and trains the ‘powered’ – people who have their own supernatural abilities. Myfanwy herself has an incredible ability, one that’s even more powerful than Thomas ever realised. And she’s certainly going to need it because the conspiracy that Thomas was investigating reaches to the highest levels of the Checquy, pitting Myfanwy against people with powers and resources more formidable than her own.

 

The Rook is one of those lovely books that has everything a novel needs to be both classy and loads of fun to read. It has great characters. It’s got a tense investigation to uncover a large-scale conspiracy. It’s got loads of action involving people with awesome supernatural powers. To top it all off, it’s full of wonderfully quirky humour. You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll gnaw your fingernails.

The Checquy, its powered employees and the supernatural aspects of the world give O’Malley a chance to be really inventive, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. The institution as a whole is nicely fleshed out, so we get to see how it works, how the training facility operates and how it recruits the powered. Only a few of the powered have commonly used abilities – there’s a vampire, for example – but even these aren’t quite the same as the ones you usually find. Most of the other powered have more interesting abilities. There’s Gestalt, who was born with one mind but four bodies. The Checquy’s training gave Gestalt the ability to allow each body to act as if it were independent, so that it can actually do four different missions in different parts of the globe and yet be connected by its single mind.

Conrad Granchester “is able to manufacture a variety of chemical compounds inside his body and then vent them through his pores in the form of a fine mist”. He can emit anything from a deadly toxin to non-lethal tear gas. There’s Lady Linda Farrier, the ‘Queen’ of the Checquy Court, who Myfanwy first meets when Lady Farrier enters her dreams to have tea. The plot has room for lots of minor characters with unique powers as well, so there’s no shortage of clever fantasy content. This is approached in a sci fi manner though – the Checquy has a horde of scientists studying these abilities, and they’re spoken of in a scientific way, but remain very much supernatural, so I put this in the science fantasy genre.

The most interesting character is Myfanwy Thomas herself. She’s a wonderful, multi-layered character, not least of all because there are two versions of her. Thomas was almost pathologically shy and her life was consumed by work. Her home and wardrobe are the definition of wealth and quality, but lack any sense of personal style. Despite her deadly powers, Thomas’s personality (or lack thereof) made her so unsuitable in the field that she ended up in admin. Luckily, her organisational skills were so impressive that she earned a position in the Checquy’s Court, but even then, she’s so timid that she commands little respect.

Myfanwy on the other hand, shares her predecessor’s talents for processing information, but is much more open and assertive. She flexes her authority in situations when Thomas would have avoided eye contact while her peers walked all over her. She’s not afraid to use her powers or go out into the field, and she often expresses disappointment in the weaknesses of her previous self. Myfanwy is a stronger version who possesses the capabilities to dismantle the conspiracy that Thomas discovered, and build a life that involves more than work.

We can also thank Myfanwy Thomas for one of the novel’s best features – its humour. I don’t think this book would have been half as enjoyable if it weren’t so funny. In Thomas’s letters to Myfanwy, she reveals herself to be a witty, engaging writer so that even though the main purpose of the letters is exposition, they still manage to be entertaining. Her wit remained even after her memory was wiped, making Myfanwy an amusing character, especially as she struggles to impersonate Thomas at work.

On the more tragic side, are Thomas’s feelings about losing her memory, which she often expresses in her letters to Myfanwy. “The body you are wearing used to be mine” – her anger and sense of injustice comes across in her very first line, even as she’s helping the person who gets to take over her life. Having her memory wiped amounts to being murdered, because the person she is will cease to exist. This isn’t the kind of story where Myfanwy will eventually regain Thomas’s memories – there’re gone forever, along with the person who possessed them.

For the plot, this means that Myfanwy can’t hope for some cliché moment where she’ll get a flashback that will reveal the villain who attacked her. This mystery must be solved through a careful investigation. Thomas already did a lot of the work, but Myfanwy must finish the job with the constant awareness that her enemies are very close. To add to that, she has to do her regular job, some of which involves co-ordinating the teams that handle the supernatural threats around the country, giving us the chance to see the powered (almost all of whom have combat training) in action.

It all makes for thoroughly gripping reading, and I was enthralled. I loved almost everything about The Rook. My only criticisms are some nitpicking about bits where the narrative dragged a little, in contrast to its other amusing or thrilling parts. I devoured it and then longed for more. If could read books like this on a regular basis I’d never find myself in a reading rut. Fantasy thriller fans, don’t you dare miss out on this one.

Seriously, go and buy a copy of The Rook.