My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Imagine that you are a high-ranking member of a super-secret, quasi-governmental, paranormal agency in the UK with a long, long past. Now imagine that one of other top members is trying to kill you, but you have no idea who. Lastly, imagine that you’ve just come to your senses with bodies all about you and no memory of how you got there. Or who you are. The only help available to you are some letters your previous self wrote to you before her memories were destroyed and those, along with her meticulous preparation for this moment, are all that can keep you alive. Well, that and your ability to kill people with a touch. If you can get yourself to use it.
The Rook is the title of both the book and the main character. Myfanwy (to rhyme with Tiffany) Thomas is one of two Rooks in the secret organization she works for, called Chequy. The other one is a super-soldier called Gestalt who shares one mind between four bodies. She has lived most of her life among people like Gestalt, people who can spit bugs, make metal into different shapes by thinking about it, gorgeous vampires hatched from eggs and a boss who can walk through your dreams whenever she wants to.
Among these talented and often assertive paranormals, Myfanwy is a lesser-valued asset. Though she has a scary power, she’s reluctant to use it. Most things and people upset her and she prefers to work behind a desk, which is actually good for the organization, since Myfanwy is a super bureaucrat. And fortunately for her, both her ability with touch and her administrative acumen remain when all of her memories are destroyed. She will need them and more to discover her enemies and preserve Checquy. In the meantime, she will also have to cope with the usual business of migrating forests, psychic ducks, and learning to run a military operation while worrying about others noticing she isn’t the same old Myfanwy.
This is Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel and it’s a better than average start. He blends frightening ideas like people with heavily-modified innards with comedic elements like the psychic duck without hurting the pace or pushing you out of the story. This is likely because the narrative is conversational throughout, especially when reading the letters Myfanwy I writes to Myfanwy II. Through the narrative and letters, we get to know and like both Myfanwys. By the end of the book, I was really sorry that Myfanwy I couldn’t avoid her transmutation into Myfanwy II and developed a big appreciation for her talents as an organizer. Without them, Myfanwy II would never have made it.
There are mysteries within mysteries in The Rook, some of them connected to those inimical to Checquy and some just crazy things that have to be dealt with. The world in which they happen has a very real feel with history, grudges, silly traditions, and enemies. Though O’Malley has done some fantastic world-building here, Myfanwy’s story is ultimately about how others see us and how we see ourselves and what we might do if we had the chance to remake ourselves without the baggage of our memories.
All of the characters were well-drawn; enough so that I felt the loss when some of them didn’t survive. But there was never any confusion on who the story was about. There were also no dead-spots; everything included in the story was there for a reason, including those small breaks where something funny happened that pointed up just how absurd such a life could be even while it gave you a breather from the action.
If you like to lose yourself in a well thought-out world with layers of interesting things to think about in the plot and you like a touch of humor with your dark fantasy, then The Rook may be for you.
NOTE: There is a sequel Stiletto which has just been released, but The Rook pretty much stands alone.