The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook coverFrom Goodreads:

“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.

Like:

Honestly I was bound to read this as soon as I saw the tag line: “In Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service.”  It had me at hello.  And the writing in the book is just as smart as that tag line.  The story is narrated by the new Myfawny in the present, interjected with letters the old Myfawny wrote to the new Myfawny telling her about the life she has inherited and her past.  It is a genius way to impart information and pace it so that the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed by all they are learning.

Both Myfawny’s have strong and distinct personalities.  New Myfawny refuses to back down from anyone and never panics in difficult situations, though there is the occasional hissy fit.  She is sarcastic and unafraid of facing the challenges around her.  Old Myfawny is described as weak willed and a push over, but is revealed to be smart, and far more capable than anyone gave her credit for.  Without her guidance new Myfanwy would have never made it.  I ended up respecting both women for their respective skills.  It would have been so easy to portray the old Myfawny as weak and undeserving.  To compare the two Myfanwys and make the narrator shine by comparison.  But O’Malley paints both with a subtle strength that fleshes them out and walks the fine line of showing their differences without setting them up for comparison.

This book does something incredibly difficult and impressive.  It makes administrative work seem cool.  (I never in my life thought I’d write a review about how interesting the admin in a book was, but I here am.)  There is plenty of field work and dangerous people to defeat (or evil purple mind-controlling mold as the case may be), but the plot moves as Myfawny learns more about the inner workings of the Chequey and how it runs.  If this was a Doctor Who episode you would get the Doctor saying, “Paper pushing is cool” as he works out the finances of the agency.  This works because you don’t get bogged down in the details, but learn just enough about how administration makes the agency works to respect what Myfawny does.

I loved the different powers all of the characters had, ranging from the grotesque to mundane.   The 6 people who run the Chequey are perfect examples.  One can visit someone’s dreams, one is a master contortionist, one has four bodies controlled by one mind.  These abilities are treated with as much humor as seriousness.  That helps keep a light tone in the book.  This could have been a very dark book, full of tension, and angst.  But Myfawny’s matter-of-fact attitude and sheer bloodymindedness stop it from falling into a horror story.  Because of this powers are treated as common place instead of burdens.

The overall plot.  Myfawny must figure out who she used to be.  There is a threat of war between the Chequey and another group of people with abilities call Grafters.  Not only does Myfawny have to figure out who in her own organization tried to kill her and destroyed her memories, but she also has to stop a supernatural war that could destroy most of Britain.  Complex, yes, but very satisfying.

Don’t Like:

The last quarter of the book is noticeably slower than the rest, and the major conflict between the Grafters and the Chequey gets wrapped up hurriedly considering all of the buildup and tension created in the rest of the book.  A lot of time gets spent telling the reader just how bad it would be if the conflict ever happens, and the way it plays out was a huge let down.

There are some plot elements that didn’t seem necessary.  Myfawny gets approached by old Myfawny’s siblings who have tracked her down.  After first establishing that this is impossible and can’t be done.  Myfawny’s sister finds her with embarrassing ease.  For a centuries old secret society, they don’t cover their tracks well.  I had a hard time buying that.  And the sister adds very little to the overall story.  She could have been cut out with out changing the plot substantially.

Overall:

I held off reading this because of all the hype it was getting.  But it deserved the hype.  Rarely do I enjoy a supernatural spy thriller this much.  I suppose this is because The Rook does not feel like a spy thriller at all.  Myfanwy Thomas is no James Bond or Jason Bourne.  She thinks her way through problems instead of using muscle.  She has almost no high tech gadgets.  What she has are her powers, a great understanding of spread sheets, and a backbone of steel.  A refreshing change from what I’m used to reading.  I will pick up the next book Daniel O’Malley writes without hesitation.

3 out of 4 Throwing Stars

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