Backlist Review: The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

Thursday, August 20, 2015
Title: The Rook
Genre: fantasy, supernatural fiction
Series: N/A as of yet
Pages: 486 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: January 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

The body you are wearing used to be mine.

So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.

She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own.

In her quest to uncover which member of the Chequy betrayed her and why, Myfanwy encounters a person with four bodies, an aristocratic woman who can enter her dreams, a secret training facility where children are transformed into deadly fighters, and a conspiracy more vast than she ever could have imagined.  

The Rook is an interesting and innovative novel, combining favorite aspects from various genres into one odd 500 page gem of weirdness. If you were to mix up the most prevalent aspects of some of the most popular books and movies out there today, The Rook is likely what your mixture would spit out as an end result. Take, for instance, the school for only British magically/supernaturally gifted kids - much like Harry Potter's Hogwarts with a dash of UK-only X-MEN thrown in. Add to that potent mix a female Jason Bourne-type with amnesia but the added ability to kick some serious ass when provoked and this novel is the result. 

Sounds a bit mad, doesn't it? And to be quite honest, The Rook is quite mad to read, but in an absurd and absorbing way. The initial chapters will pose the most problems for readers and is the biggest hurdle to climb in the book; The Rook is basically the story about one woman, in two different time periods. Letters from Myfanwy's previous self to her current self comprise a lot of the bulk of the beginning and most of it is exposition and worldbuilding to reinforce the large framework O'Malley has envisioned for his alternate world full of unnatural things and an MI5 for supernaturals. The letters illuminate the complete, detailed secret history and lore of the Checquy more than cast light on the character of Myfanwy herself; the present-day portion of the novel reveals much more about Myfawy the person and less about Myfanwy the Rook of the Checquy Court. Much like there are two Myfanwys contained in the novel, there are two different main plots for each woman. The first Myfanwy is all about preparing and planning for what she knows is coming, and the second Myfanwy is all about kicking ass and taking names.

Myfanwy is a distinct and well-rounded character, with the added bonus of a truly original name (she pronounces it "Mif-un-ee", rhymes with 'Tiffany') to set her out immediately from the crowd. I have to admit that for about 90% of the novel I was completely confused as to who she was in the present-tense. Was Myfanwy II the same person as Myfanwy I, but with no memories? Or was she an entirely new person shuttled into Myfanwy's skin? While that may seem like a loaded question, it's well within the frame of abilities of this book. The original Myfanwy was timid in personn, but strong with her policies - an interesting combination of contrasting behaviors. The newer, betrayed Rook isn't afraid of her powers and is bold both personally and professionally. I liked Myfanwy in both versions, but the latter's sense of dry, very British-esque humor ("Gentlemen, please try not to jostle my interrogational gynecologist.") was what sealed the deal and kept me going past chapter one. And how rewarding that decision was - the book evolves into a humorous, creative and unique vein, as does Myfanwy herself. I don't want to spoil her character arc or development since the mystery at the heart of her problems is hard to guess, but this is one of those characters - the ones you remember long after reading the book. I also really appreciated how romance-free ths book was - the strongest relationships shown here are friendships. Between women. In fact, in a happy surprise for me, outside of main character Myfanwy, my two favorite secondary characters were strong, intelligent and capable women (Shantay the sassy black envoy from America's Checquy, the Croatoan and Ingrid - who "possessed no inhuman powers apart from an abundance of common sense and an ability to keep this organized". Think a female Alfred, but a secretary and AWESOME).

The Checquy is the highly regimented government organization that Myfanwy runs - or the one that ran her, back before the events of The Rook. The Checquy is a large, sprawling and hidden organization that protects the UK from all manner of unnatural threat - like I said, it's an MI5 for the paranormal. While the idea of a secret government paranormal protection agency isn't exactly revolutionary for the UF/PNR genre, how O'Malley utilizes his Court of Pawns, Rooks, Chevaliers and Bishops is.  From the design of the Court on, it's obvious that O'Malley's version of government-sponsored paranormal entity is both unique and mysterious. As is immediately obvious from the sheer amount of detail provided on the Checquy and its modus operandi, O'Malley has certainly planned out intricately how this 'part school, army, prison, research facility and arm of the government' will operate and affect his characters and novel. The beginning suffers the most from the info-dumps used to introduce the hidden agency, but once the reader has a grip on what they are reading about, the info-dumps don't seem as bad and progress to interesting on their own merit. O'Malley's version of an England with the Checquy in power since Cromwell's day is neither beyond the scope of imagination nor reminiscent of any other I've read.

The mystery at the heart of the novel (What exactly happened to Myfanwy? Who is behind it? Why was she targeted? Who knows her secret?) is complex and not easily guessed. Luckily for me, the overall BigBad wasn't obvious from the outset, or telegraphed to the reader long before the end and thus, I had the privilege of being shocked by the reveal and the author's impressive narrative sleight-of-hand.  This book has a healthy dose of the absurd to make the gore more palatable but I wasn't surprised for how.... violent... parts of this was. While it's not true movie-type gore with bodies and parts flying about wildly, there are disquieting scenes with faces ripped off, people being eaten and general deadly, gross mayhem.

While it's been coming up all roses this far into the review, but I did have some slight issues with The Rook. The Big Bad falls victim to what I am calling the Syndrome Syndrome - the inexplicable need that a winning/succeeding villain feels to explain every last action and decision on the road to the final conflict/proselytize their own ideas to their victims for lengthy amounts of time. I also had issues with the family plotline introduced late into the novel; though it gives Myfanwy an additional layer of depth and a reason to accelerate the 'panic' she feels, it feels unneceasy and superfluous. It could be easily excised and the pace that began to flag would bounce back easily. Bronwyn, though likeable if not very defined, doesn't do much or add much to the overall story, besides slowing the speed at which everything happens.

I was both impressed and somewhat surprised at how tidily everything herein was wrapped up. There were so many various threads and plotlines throughout the novel, I had sincerely wondered if O'Malley could possibly pull it off with any degree of satisfaction, or I was going to left holding the bag, so the speak, as a reader. Against my fearful and increasingly worried expectations, since the resolution is left until the very last 25 pages of 500, he did so, and with humor and aplomb. O'Malley is a very gifted storyteller that gets caught up perhaps a bit much in his own creativity but finds a way back to the compelling story at the heart of his monsters and magic run amok in England. 

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