Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley

The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley.  Little, Brown and Company, 2012.  978-0-316-19327-6.

... in which Myfanwy Thomas awakes with no memory of who she is, and must somehow return to her life as a high-ranking official in a secret government agency that protects the world from supernatural enemies.

Myfanwy Thomas (pronounced miff-uh-ney) wakes up one night and finds herself surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves, with no memory of who she is.  In her pocket, she finds a letter from her pre-amnesiac self, explaining that her name is Myfanwy Thomas and that she is being hunted by people who want to destroy her.  Following the clues from her pre-amnesiac self, Myfanwy Thomas gradually learns that she is a Rook for the Checquy, a top-secret British government agency with hundreds of agents, directed towards protecting the world from various supernatural threats.  Myfanwy's title of Rook places her in the very highest echelon of the Checquy, essentially making her a general in charge of all domestic supernatural problems.  Myfanwy has to continue to follow the clues to discover who she is and who is trying to kill her, while also preventing her dangerous colleagues at the Checquy from discovering her total amnesia, and while preventing a full-scale invasion of horrifying monsters attempting to take over Great Britain.

On an unrelated note, this is the first e-book I have ever read from an e-reader.  A few days ago, my husband surprised me with a gift of a Nook Simple-Touch, and now I am reviewing a copy of The Rook, a book on my Nook.  Here's my review.  Take a look!  (I couldn't resist)

Anyway.  The Rook is one of the more absorbing pieces of urban fantasy that I've ever read.  The story is told in several different styles.  The majority of it is told from Myfanwy's perspective, after she wakes up with amnesia.  Most of the rest of the story is told through the letters that pre-amnesia Myfanwy wrote to post-amnesia Myfanwy.  It soon becomes clear that the two versions of Myfanwy are very different people, which makes her character so much more interesting.  Pre-amnesia Myfanwy had a reputation for being a paper-shuffling administrator, absolutely brilliant at planning and office work but totally useless with her supernatural powers and completely afraid of confrontation with her colleagues.  Post-amnesia Myfanwy is much stronger in her powers (the ability to control another's mind and body), and much more willing to be aggressive in her career and personal life.  Either way, Myfanwy is a well-constructed character who is likable and relatable, interesting, flawed and multi-dimensional.

Several of the side characters are very well done secondary characters.  Myfanwy's secretary Ingrid is especially interesting, especially as she reacts to Myfanwy's attempts to fish for information after her amnesia.  A lot of the superpowers exhibited in the book are unusual, compared to the superpowers one normally sees.  There are plenty of the normal powers, like metal manipulation and superstrength, but there are plenty of weird ones that I would never have thought of.

The world that Daniel O'Malley has created makes for very interesting material.  Like so many other popular fantasy novels, this one revolves around a supernatural world that exists right under our noses; magic and superpowers and weird beasts being kept just out of the sight of normal human beings.  The Checquy is a complicated organization with a complicated task and a complicated structure, which lets O'Malley bring in all kinds of characters and plot twists.  It was interesting how all of the titles within the Checquy ("checquy" means a coat of arms divided into squares; see book cover above) are based on chess pieces.  The two Rooks, one of whom is Myfanwy, are responsible for tracking down and containing domestic supernatural threats.  Their colleagues the Chevaliers (knights) take care of international supernatural affairs, the two bishops take care of the overall administration of the whole Checquy, and the lord and lady of the Checquy are the ultimate authority in the organization.

The plot of the book moves along quickly.  The book opens with Myfanwy's awakening with her amnesia, and from there, Myfanwy is almost constantly moving from crisis to crisis.  The only lulls in the action come the form of the letters from pre-amnesia Myfanwy, who had been warned by a number of psychics that she would be losing all of her memories at some point, as a result of an attack from another member of the Checquy .  The letters are a little bit of the plot convenience, because they're an easy way for the author to inform the reader of all of the necessary background information, without making the reader flounder around for answers.  It does interrupt the flow of the book a little, especially when the text goes from Myfanwy being attacked by a giant fungus to a letter describing the minutiae of administrative tasks that are among the Rook's duties.  There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, though the villains turn out to be fairly predictable.  It's a fun book to read, not only because of the fast pace of events, but also because Myfanwy turns out to be a pretty funny person, especially when she's angry.

The level of complexity in this book is just right, in my opinion.  The book has enough details and characters to require careful reading, but not to the point where the reader is bogged down with a very long character list and a thousand pages of plot.  The story is dense enough to satisfy a reader's desire for a longer read, without requiring so much time that the reader feels like they're reading an epic.  It's definitely a book for adults who enjoyed Harry Potter as children, but would now like to read fantasy with a little more grit and detail and complexity.  There are plenty of things for fantasy fans to enjoy in this book, from its new interpretation of supernatural myths and creatures to its subtle mockery of some genre cliches.  (There was one instance that I would like to believe was meant to be taking aim at Eragon and other boy-meets-dragon books, but perhaps I am reading too much into it)

5/5 stars

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