Reading Week #2: ‘The Rook’ by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook
Daniel O'Malley

What would you be like if you woke up and couldn’t remember who you were?  Would you still be you, or would you be someone else?  These are some of the issues facing the main character of Daniel O’Malley’s “The Rook“.  Finding the answers to those questions serves as the springboard to a quick-paced romp through an alternate-world England beset by monsters, sentient fungus, and government bureaucrats.

“The Rook” is Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel. It’s an intriguing mix of SF, mystery, adventure, procedural and intrigue, leavened with a dose of supernatural goings-on for good measure. There’s a lot happening in this book, and for the most part, O’Malley does a good job of shepherding us through his convoluted plotline, managing to introduce a large cast, set up an interesting variation on our current world, and involve us in a mysterious conspiracy. While some aspects of the novel came off a bit flat, on the whole I enjoyed it, and will be looking for further books from him.

“The Rook” is both a person and a job title, and refers to the main character Myfanwy Thomas. She is a high-ranking member of the Checquy, a secret British governmental organization tasked with keeping a lid on the various supernatural, or at least extra-natural, emergencies that pop up in England at a distressingly high frequency. The organization is loosely structured along the lines of the game of chess, with Bishops, Rooks, Pawns, etc. Myfanwy has been raised at a school for children with special abilities, and her training and powers have brought her to a position of significant power and importance. Unfortunately for her, when we first meet her she is waking up in a park, surrounded by corpses, with no memory of how they ended up dead. Even worse, she doesn’t have any idea at all of her own identity – something has completely wiped her memory. It’s a very intriguing way to introduce a character, as Myfanwy’s search for clues about her identify and her place in the world (not to mention who’s trying to kill her) allows the reader to learn about the world along with Myfanwy. We get to know the new Myfanwy as she tries to pick up the threads of the life of the old Myfanwy.

There are a number of set-pieces throughout the book that are designed to introduce characters, elements of the world, and provide background into the Checquy. Some of these were among the most inventive parts of the novel. Unfortunately, others felt tacked-on and extraneous; a slightly more severe editing might have improved the flow of the novel, which weighed in at almost 500 pages. For the most part, however, “The Rook” was a quick read, and the length was only noticeable when picking up the book and carrying it around.

I’m deliberately avoiding much discussion of details of the multiple plotilines – I enjoyed working my way through the mysteries that Myfanwy encounters and don’t want to spoil the surprises for other readers. In short, she has to deal with the mystery surrounding her amnesia, including which of her colleagues is behind it all, determine why and how an ancient enemy of the Checquy will be invading England, figure out if numerous smaller emergencies are part of a larger plot, and accomplish all this while keeping everyone around her from finding out she’s lost all her memories and has no idea who anyone is and what she’s supposed to be doing.

In style and subject matter, “The Rook” reminded me of Charles Stross‘ “Laundry” series, which began with “The Atrocity Archives”. “The Rook” is a bit less tongue-in-cheek than the Stross books, but both have similar underlying foundations to their world-building. Anyone familiar with the Laundry series should give “The Rook” a try – I expect that they’d enjoy it. All-in-all, “The Rook” is a promising start as a debut novel, and I’m looking forward to more entries in what I hope will be an ongoing series.

Daniel O’Malley’s website, The Rook Files, has a PDF of the first four chapters, if you want to give it a try!

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