Review of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Title: The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Published: First published in Japanese in 2005; this translation published in 2011
Publisher:
 Little, Brown
Genre: crime, mytery
Source: review copy from Penguin SA
Rating: 7/10

Yasuko is a single mother living a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, when her ex-husband Togashi walks back into her life. She’d divorced him after he became an abusive drunk who took her money for gambling. Afterwards, he’d repeatedly harassed Yasuko and her daughter Misato, until Yasuko changed jobs, homes and Misato’s school in an effort to get away from him. But now he’s found them again. In their small apartment, he brags that they will never be rid of him, prompting a terrified Misato to attack him. In the struggle that follows, Yasuko defends her daughter by strangling Togashi while Misato holds him down.

Mother and daughter are both prepared to turn themselves in when their enigmatic neighbour, Ishigami, calls and offers to help them dispose of the body. Yasuko is shocked that he figured out what happened and wants to help, but she knows that Ishigami – a reclusive mathematical genius – has always had a thing for her. Although he’s too shy to exchange more than a few words with her and sometimes can’t even make eye contact, he always buys his lunch from the bento shop where she works just so that he can see her.

Ishigami immediately begins instructing Yasuko and Misato on dealing with the incriminating evidence and makes plans for disposing of Togashi’s body. Soon after, the police find a body with its face smashed in and fingerprints burned off. By the time they identify it as Togashi and come knocking on Yasuko’s door, the mother and daughter have credible alibis and there is no solid evidence linking them to Togashi’s death. But the police have no one else to suspect, and Detective Kusanagi of the Edogawa police keeps poking at the problems in Yasuko’s story and questioning the puzzling circumstances of the murder. He turns to his friend Yukawa, another genius who works in the physics department at a local university and sometimes helps the police with their cases.

Yukawa, Kusanagi and Ishigami actually all attended university at the same time, and when Yukawa hears that Ishigami is the neighbour of the murder suspect, he asks Kusanagi for the address. Yukawa simply wants to get in touch with an old friend and classmate whose brilliance he deeply admired, but in doing so he starts to suspect Ishigami’s involvement in the case. The physicist is the only one with a mind to match the mathematician’s, and with Kusanagi’s help he tries to solve the problem that Ishigami has created to protect the woman he is so devoted to.

This is an unusual and interesting angle for a mystery novel. For the reader, there is no mystery surrounding Togashi’s murder – we learn all there is to know about the why, who and how in the first two chapters. Instead, it’s Ishigami’s brilliant cover-up that drives the story, as Yukawa and Kusanagi battle to find the truth. We see only fragments of Ishigami’s plan, which at first seems simplistic and sloppy, but is soon revealed to be complex and deceptive. Ishigami has never done something like this before, but he is certain that “Logical thinking will get us through this” and applies mathematical ideas to the problem as if it were an equation or philosophical dilemma.

For the sake of suspense, most of his methods are hidden from the reader until the very end. It feels a tad artificial, since the story is told from multiple perspectives (Yasuko, Ishigami, Yukawa and Kusanagi) and you are very aware of the fact that the author is being selective about what his characters say and think, or how much of their conversations are put on the page. But I thought the story worked very well nevertheless. Even if you aren’t privy to Ishigami’s plans, you get to see Yukawa and Kusanagi tackling the problem. The only irritating part is when Yukawa starts to figure out what happened, but only makes vague and provocative statements about it because he’s unwilling to incriminate his friend and doesn’t want such a brilliant mind to be wasted in prison.

There are some other interesting character dynamics at play. Yasuko starts dating an old friend, but both she and Misato are aware of how this could jeopardise their situation – Ishigami is obviously obsessed with her, so what might he do if he feels betrayed? Should Yasuko put her life on hold for someone so socially inept that he can’t even have a normal conversation with her? And how dangerous is Ishigami, a man who didn’t think twice about covering up a murder or mutilating a body to do it? The crime has been committed, but the sense of menace remains, especially when Yukawa describes Ishigami as a man who would do anything, no matter how horrific, if it was the most logical solution to a problem.

It’s quietly compelling story, somehow managing to be a page-turner with a minimum of the drama that that term generally implies. I appreciated its calm, straightforward manner and the way the plot differed from the norm. The Japanese police in the novel seem so very different from the brash cops often seen in fiction, or the overworked, under-resourced and inefficient ones you hear about in the news. The Edogawa police have all the resources they need, and Kusanagi is thoughtful and observant. He warns his partner about the danger of assumptions, when the younger officer assumes that a nice single-mother like Yasuko couldn’t possibly be guilty of a violent crime. Similarly, Yukawa warns Kusanagi about the assumptions the police are making, knowing that Ishigami could use that against them.

I like the strategic, rational thinking here, especially when it comes to the two geniuses. I only wish that the whole novel was as rigorous, because its logic fails somewhat in relation to Misato’s character. While there were only two or three technical details that bothered me in the novel, the worst one was about Misato – after she attacks Togashi, he retaliates and hits her repeatedly in the face, but at no point does she show any bruises.

Then, I felt that her character was badly neglected, which bugged me throughout the book and becomes problematic at the end. We’re always left to make assumptions about her motives and feelings, while other characters’ are described in more detail. It’s stated that Togashi had physically abused Yasuko, but whether or not Misato was also abused is not clear, although it’s very likely. Then there’s a subtle suggestion that he may have abused her sexually, which would certainly account for her fear, and her impulse to attack Togashi and help her mother kill him. Misato’s actions are what set the entire story in motion, but even in that crucial moment the focus is on Yasuko, and Misato feels secondary. For the rest of the novel, she is little more than a sullen teenager, spitting out a line here and there. She clearly feels guilty about what she did, not because Togashi was killed but because of the trouble and risk created for Yasuko and Ishigami. And yet Misato’s feelings are barely touched upon, even when we see the story from Yasuko’s POV as a concerned parent. If she talks to Misato about the situation, we don’t see it on the page.

On a related note, the police largely ignore the reasons behind the murder. The reader, of course, knows that Togashi threatened Yasuko and Misato, and several characters express relief at his death, knowing how badly he’d treated his ex-wife and step-daughter. The police, however, are more concerned with the who and how of the murder, not the why. With no one to suspect except Yasuko, they try to figure out how she could have done it, but aren’t too concerned with the glaring possibility that she killed Togashi in a kind of self-defence. Besides the fact that the police would need a motive for the case, ignoring the issue seems unkind, portraying Yasuko as a killer rather than a vulnerable person in a difficult situation.

Flaws aside though, The Devotion of Suspect X is an excellent crime thriller and an intelligent page-turner. It offers a refreshing departure from the norm in English-language fiction, not only because of the plot but because of the Tokyo setting, and the Japanese culture. The translation can be a little clunky at times, but some of that I would chalk up to a difference in style that I’ve noticed in other translations from Japanese, in both popular fiction and anime. I’d happily pick up another of Keigo Higashino’s novels, and I’d recommend that you do too.

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Review of Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches

Me and the Devil by Nick ToschesTitle: Me and the Devil
Author: Nick Tosches
Published: 
4 December 2012
Publisher: 
Little, Brown
Genre: 
literary fiction
Source: 
arc from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
4/10

Nick is a bitter, alcoholic writer in his early sixties. “I looked like a man but I was not” he laments, complaining that he has become “a toothless wraith of a man that once had been” without even the inspiration to write (“I felt that there was nothing left to write. I was a poet without pen or drum.”). He scrapes by on a diet of booze, coffee and cigarettes, but as he crawls further from youth and closer to death he becomes “desperate to cling to another” even though human contact often repulses him. Despite his complaints though, he has no trouble picking up young women in bars and one day he meets Sandrine, who “liked to be raped after bathing in warm water and milk and brushing out her hair” (Nick repeats this description multiple times). Sandrine is the first of a series of women who Nick beds, bites, and drinks. He finds their young blood invigorating, as if drinking it restores his youth. He begins a relationship with a beautiful young student named Melissa, who entertains his sexual fantasies and new-found blood lust.

The blood changes Nick’s life – he feels like he’s getting younger and healthier; he stops drinking alcohol; he eats the finest foods money can buy. Soon, the changes become grandiose – he believes that he is turning into a god, and Melissa is a goddess; his exquisite meals are viewed as “Eucharistic”; and his habits become “rituals”.

If this were a fantasy novel, I would have accepted this as perfectly normal. However, the novel has the distinct feel of literary fiction that would never admit to being pure fantasy, leaving me with the suspicion that it’s Nick who simply can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. After all, this is a man who binge-drinks his way into blackouts and hallucinations. The ease with which he finds a string of beautiful young women who are willing to let him bite their thighs and drink their blood seems even less plausible than the idea that their blood restores his youth, and I became even more sceptical as Nick engaged in increasingly weird and violent sex scenes with women who actually wanted to be abused by a dirty old man. It’s too convenient, too much in tune with Nick’s desires. The fact that the story is narrated in the first person throws further doubt on Nick’s credibility. Although he has stopped writing, he finds a strange new piece that he can’t remember penning, giving us one of the first signs that his mind is not to be trusted.

Even if it weren’t already mentioned in the blurb, Nick’s eventual descent into madness and destruction would seem inevitable. As with his apotheosis, we never know how much of it is real or imagined, and Tosches has no interest in clarifying the matter. He simply offers this portrait of a mind in turmoil, and the reader cannot escape its subjectivity. And since Nick and Tosches have the same name, profession and age, you’re constantly, disturbingly aware that this is a kind of fictionalised autobiography, that Tosches is using Nick as a kind of puppet, or that he is at least toying with you by making you think so.

For the most part, I liked this aspect of the novel, which exists mostly in Nick’s interactions with the other characters. Unfortunately, he is a grumpy old asshole who spends most of his time alone, pontificating about all sorts of random crap.

Nick takes us through his day-to-day activities – cooking meals and eating them, taking medication, shopping, going to the bar, going to the doctor, having dinner with his good friend Keith Richards (yes, that Keith Richards), etc. He doesn’t drive, so he walks, giving him plenty of opportunity to comment on what he sees. Mostly, he complains about how much he hates modern-day New York and its inhabitants:

I looked down across the street at those who scurried to their daily servitude, with their Styrofoam cups of bitter watery coffee, their dupe’s containers of treacly Starbucks swill, their industrially dyed and flavored sugarwater “energy drinks,” their assembly line donuts, their stale rubbery bagels, their tasteless doughy croissants.

They were a funny lot, these white slaves of ignoble careers of lucrative indolence. To say that they were deserving of death would be to demean death. It would be without meaning as well, for they were in a way already dead. The jogging dead. Carbohydrate-conscious cadavers with frozen smiles of chilling insensate fake vibrancy on their dull scrubbed pampered faces.

I passed a new store, on Hudson Street, a sort of day care resort for yuppie mutts called Biscuits & Bath. It offered grooming, transportation, natural foods, puppy kindergarten, classes in basic manners, exercise programs, and socialization services. This neighborhood really was fucking going to hell. It was getting embarrassing just to live around here.

Ok, that last one is funny, and those quotes aren’t entirely unfair, but you see what I mean about Nick being bitter and ranting a lot. I did enjoy some of his meanderings, especially his descriptions of exquisite things – the luxurious pantihose and designer high heels he buys for Melissa to indulge one of his fantasies; the sublime food he enjoys at the heights of his experience; sets of beautiful hand-crafted knives with handles made from rare materials. I also learned a few things about pronunciation and grammar, but for the most part Nick is a boring, insufferable snob, and this novel is far too self-indulgent (whether the ‘self’ is just Nick or both Nick and Tosches, I’m not sure).

To the book’s credit (perhaps) it actually admits to these flaws. Nick, has several disparaging comments about his writing, and writing in general, and these actually fit my feelings about this novel:

George Orwell said, all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy. “Writing a book,” he said, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

The words that pursued these words did not speak to any of my questions, nor did they make anything more clear or less clear. I knew only that they sang to me, that their song was mine, and that they must be given form, metered to and arranged on the page in a way that captured and conveyed the sound and colors of their spell.

No one will ever see this. I am the you to whom I write. I am you. The only you.

What I took from this is the idea that he’s writing under a kind of compulsion that may well be as pathetic as the a screaming of a baby. His writing doesn’t have a message or theme (“these words did not speak to any of my questions, nor did they make anything more clear or less clear”); he just needs to express himself, and he does so without expecting anyone else to read it.

That could be an excuse for why the story is so self-indulgent, why it’s sometimes so boring and mundane, but also has so many graphic, increasingly violent sex scenes (actually, there isn’t always sex per se, but I should warn you that this book is not for sensitive readers). Nick can say things that he might not be able to say to others, and admit to doing horrible things. It could also explain why Nick feels at liberty to speak about women the way he does, referring to them as “galmeat”, casually throwing the word ‘rape’ around and saying things like

There was a lot of good-looking leg passing by out there. What a drag it was that rape involved so much exertion. Just to get some broad to be still while you jerked off on her calf or had her suck your cock without being properly introduced.

Me and the Devil is very much the narrative of an angry, arrogant, aging man saying what he wants and indulging his fantasies, the greatest of which is desire to reclaim his youth. A major part of that is his struggle with that titular devil, which could be an evil being or – more likely – Nick himself.

I can admire all this, to an extent. There’s some great writing here, along with the exploration of an interesting kind of psyche. I don’t like Nick at all, but sometimes it was interesting to be inside his head, and I like the idea of him expressing himself so freely, even though I’m often repulsed by what he says. I also like that the novel seems to admit to its flaws of self-expression, but at the same time those flaws make it pretty tedious to read, and for me that’s far worse than all the perversion. I think Nick is someone who has to resonate with you on a personal level, and if he doesn’t you’re unlikely to enjoy this novel very much. I didn’t.

Review of Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris

Title: Kingdom of Strangers
Series: Nayir al-Sharqi #3
Author: Zoë Ferraris
Published: 05 June 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown
Genre: crime and mystery
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

The bodies of nineteen women are discovered buried out in the Saudi Arabian desert, all with their hands cut off. The oldest has been there for a decade, and the police are shocked by the fact a serial killer has been operating, completely undetected, for so long. Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani is put in charge of the case, but he soon finds himself distracted by another serious issue – his mistress Sabria has gone missing.

Unfortunately he can’t simply report her disappearance. By doing so he would reveal his relationship to her, and adultery is punishable by public beheading in Saudi. The police wouldn’t bother trying to find Sabria if they knew about the affair either, since no one cares about prostitutes. So Zahrani asks Katya Hijazi, one of the few female officers, to help him investigate Sabria’s disappearance.

This is a great risk for Katya. Helping an adulterer and even spending time alone with a man is a breach of propriety that could disgrace her, or even get her fired. But she is an ambitious woman, and by helping Zahrani she hopes to play a role in the serial killer case as well.

Kingdom of Strangers is the third in a series of mystery novels set in Saudi Arabia, but it reads very well as a stand-alone. I thought it was great, although not because of the two mysteries contained in the plot. These are good, but not as brilliant as some. The real drawcard is the myriad ways in which the extreme social restrictions of Saudi society affect police investigations, as well as people’s personal and professional lives. It’s a place where modern conveniences are juxtaposed with archaic practices. Forensic science and torture are both normal aspects of criminal investigations. Crimes like murder and adultery are punished by public beheading while thieves have their hands cut off. A sword is usually used. However, when a woman is executed, “you don’t cut off her head. You shoot her in the back of the head.[…] If they chopped off the head, it might roll and the burqa might come off, and you would see her face. So they shoot her instead. They sometimes give her the choice.”

Hiding a woman’s face, even in death, is one of the many, many religious restrictions that suffuse Saudi society. Virtue policies prevent men and women from interacting unless absolutely necessary, so many places, such as restaurants, workplaces and even homes, are divided into separate areas for men and women. There are even women-only malls. This an important issue in the serial-killer case – normally a killer could meet women in bars, restaurants or other public places, but in Saudi there’s no legitimate way for a man to meet a woman in public. This is perhaps why all the killer’s victims are immigrants. Their lives are different from a normal Saudi woman’s, and Saudi Arabia is full of them:

Saudi had let itself become a kingdom of strangers. It welcomed its immigrants because they lent the illusion that all Saudis could afford hired help, because the immigrants did the jobs that most Saudis would never dream of doing — housekeeping, trash collecting, taxi driving — and because without them, absolutely nothing would get done.

The authorities cannot keep track of all the immigrants, many of whom are women lured into the country on false pretences, only to end up forced into lives of indentured servitude, frequently abused by their employers. Runaways and disappearances are common, and few take notice or care about the missing women.

On the whole, being a woman in Saudi Arabia is the definition of impractical. You can hardly do anything or go anywhere without the permission or help of a man. Being a female police officer is just as bad, and Katya’s character relates this experience. She works in forensics, but wants to play a more active role in police work. It’s difficult to imagine how she could accomplish this though.

Women are not allowed to drive, so Katya couldn’t get go out to investigate much without a man to accompany her. She can’t even get to work unless her younger cousin drives her. She can’t interview men without a chaperone, because they mind find it improper to talk to a woman. As it is, her job involves a lot of minor interactions with men, and she’s worried that this will upset her fiancé and he will force her to quit.

Interaction with men puts her job at risk in other ways too. When Zahrani first talks to Katya about Sabria’s disappearance, he doesn’t want to risk being overheard so he ushers her into the women’s bathroom and locks the door. Throughout their conversation, Katya is distracted by worry – if she’s caught alone in the bathroom with this man, she could be fired on the spot. She has the same concerns when alone in a car with Zahrani – what will happen if her fiancé or her father hears about this? She’s 29 years old, but sometimes she’s as disempowered as a young child, if not more so.

This is far more than just a personal problem for women though – social restrictions deeply affect police work too. “We do not touch women” the chief medical examiner tells Zahrani, explaining why there’s only one woman working on all of the 19 bodies that were discovered in the desert. It doesn’t matter that they might be able to stop the killer sooner if they can get information from his victims faster – virtue comes first. In normal investigations the police will show people photos of victims or suspects and ask if they recognise them, but showing people photos of women in Saudi is sometimes pointless, because many of them cover their faces in public. As Katya realises, it’s sometimes better to have a full-body shot in a burkha, because the woman might only be recognisable as a black shape, not as a face (this seems unlikely, but Zahrani speaks about how, as a child, he was terrified of losing his mother in the market, and he had to learn to recognise her shape and walk). Some people even have problems with photographing victims at crime scenes – it’s considered immoral to expose certain parts of the body (for women this includes everything except the hands and feet), and in strict versions of Islam it’s forbidden to take photos at all.

Even when Katya proves helpful in the serial killer investigation, most men in the department disapprove of her involvement regardless of her insights. They find it inappropriate for her to come into the men’s section of the building. Even though she does forensic analyses, the men will not tell her what significance they have for the case. Female employees are nevertheless necessary in the department. They can interview other women, go to places like women-only malls, and examine female corpses.

Men don’t necessarily have an easy time of it though. Zahrani is not very religious and he’s annoyed by many virtue policies, especially now that Sabria is missing. We see a bit of his family life and with it a glimpse of marital and sexual relations in the Saudi context. Katya’s fiancé Nayir (after whom the series is named, since he features in the previous two novels as well) worries about how a married man is, in some ways, his wife’s servant. He has to drive her around, wait for her while he shops, and perform all the tasks that she is not allowed to.

It’s a strange, almost surreal society. With all the concerns about purity and virtue, Saudi society is oddly perverse because people see and look for sex everywhere – a woman’s exposed hair, eye contact, casual conversation, etc. At one point a colleague mentions – as a criticism – that Zahrani was seen leaving the station with Katya; it was so bizarre that something as innocuous as leaving a building with a female colleague could get a man into trouble at work.

There are so many things in this novel that you could speak about with disbelief, and yet Zoë Ferraris tells this story with a kind of calm, matter-of-fact style that makes it utterly realistic but still very readable because doesn’t constantly make me want to scream in frustration (as news about the treatment of women in the Middle East usually does). The treatment of women in Saudi society is of course critiqued in the novel, but it doesn’t read like raucous polemic; rather a frank but fair portrayal of a society that few people could speak of in any positive way. This is life, in one of its many forms, albeit an obscene one.

On the whole I see Kingdom of Strangers not so much as a mystery novel but as a detailed portrait of Saudi society with two mysteries as the base on which the story is built. That said, I’d still recommend it to crime fiction readers because it gives such an interesting perspective on police investigation, it’s well written, has strong characters and an entertaining plot. I really appreciated it for its view on such a closed society too. Ferraris spent some time living in Saudi with her then-husband and his family, and although I imagine it must have been a very difficult experience at times, she’s certainly gained something valuable to offer readers.

 

Buy Kingdom of Strangers at The Book Depository

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.