End Date: December 29th
Author: Daniel O’Malley
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Pages: 496 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea
Elle Tea’s Score:
” ‘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 Checquy 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 Checquy 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 could ever have imagined.”
Elle Tea’s Review
We tried something a little different this year here at Gigglemug: rather than all of us struggling to finish whatever book was selected during the busy month of December, each of us would instead select our own book to review based on how much time we thought we might have in the month. I selected The Rook, a book I’d originally read in 2013 but recently noticed it had since been followed by a sequel. I remembered quite liking this book when I’d first read it, but I couldn’t remember enough of the plot to dive headfirst into its follow-up…
It is a testament to the willingness of humanity to ignore the obvious.
And so here we are.
I do still quite like The Rook, though not enough to give it the five-star rating I’d originally assigned to it on Goodreads. I’ve become pickier since then, and I’ve read a few truly excellent books which have raised the bar just enough to knock this back to a four-cup / four-star rating.
“Well, I… had an appointment.” They regarded her with expectant eyes, and she was suddenly filled with a desire to shake up those proprietary stares. “A gynecologist appointment.” She smiled triumphantly at the twins. “To have my vagina checked,” she added. “And… it’s still… there. And okay.”
But don’t misunderstand me: this is still a great book which tells a fantastic story with finesse, humor, mystery, action, and – most importantly – originality. It’s clever, the story is entirely driven by an intelligent woman (er… women?), there are numerous fascinating supporting characters, the world in which our protagonist resides is familiar and yet fantastical, and (huzzah!!!!) our heroine never finds herself entangled in some unnecessary romantic escapade.
“Yes, Minister, it turns out there was a mysterious force that caused the plane to crash… We call it gravity.”
To begin with all that is great and good about The Rook, let’s focus first on the stage: modern-day Britain. But what concerns us isn’t Big Ben, the Tower, Buckingham Palace, or even pubs – our attention instead remains firmly fixed on the Checquy, an extremely secretive bureaucratic organization whose primary purpose is to identify magical occurrences, trace them back to their points of origin, and then either control, contain, or destroy the entity or entities responsible. Though based in England, the Checquy has operatives across the globe and often coordinates efforts with other similar organizations, such as the Croatoan in the U.S. As they say, it takes a thief to catch a thief, and the Checquy is no exception: its success with all things magical, paranormal, and supernatural is solely due to the fact that its officials and agents are primarily also magical, paranormal, and / or supernatural. There are “regular” humans drizzled throughout the organization, but with the rare exception they are, for the most part, clearly considered more breakable and less reliable than those with powers and special abilities. It’s a bit like the X-Files combined with Kingsman peopled with characters who would fit comfortably into the Marvel universe.
“You know, Ingrid, I don’t think ‘interesting’ is a suitable response from an intelligent person. It means ‘I have no idea, but I think I’d better say something.'”
Thirty-one-year-old Rook Thomas was – prior to her little… accident – a highly intelligent, extraordinarily clever, career-driven executive administrator near the tippity-top of the Checquy. She was plain, mousy, more than a little timid, and apparently ashamed of and frightened by her own powers (which I won’t get into here, since not knowing what she can do is an important part of finding out who she is throughout the earlier parts of the story). But we never truly know Rook Thomas – or at least not that Rook Thomas – save for through what she has left behind and via New Rook Thomas’s interactions with other characters who are, more often than not, mildly surprised by her sudden change in attitude and approach to certain situations.
Actually, the most effective psychics are the ones who never realize they’re psychic and instead manage to live excellent lives by consistently making the right decisions. Their powers effectively guide them through the shoals of life without their knowing.
Our Rook Myfanwy Thomas is, while obviously still also rather plain and thirty-one years of age, fresh and new to this whole gig. We quickly learn how clever and intelligent she still is, as she – and the story – hits the ground running: she awakes to find she has no idea where or who she is, and she’s very swiftly forced to improvise and – for lack of a better term – bullshit her way around people who had interacted with Prior Rook Thomas on a regular basis for decades. But Myfanwy doesn’t share her predecessor’s memories, and so she has no idea why her closet is full of monochrome business suits or why her compatriots look at her so oddly when she speaks her mind, and, most importantly, she has no idea that she’s not supposed to want to use or learn more about the limits of her own unique magical gifts.
Checquy statistics indicate that 15 percent of all men in hats are concealing horns.
Surrounding Myfanwy are characters who are oftentimes at least as fascinating as she is – if not moreso for the air of mystery surrounding their origins and intentions: a woman who can enter your dreams and influence them or interact with you while in your mind; four siblings – a set of twins, a brother, and a sister – who are actually one person; a man who can contort any part of his body – or all of his body, if he chooses – into almost any shape; another who can cause one to feel any physical sensation wherever he chooses with a simple touch; one who can manipulate metal to do whatever he wills and another who can essentially turn parts or all of her own body into metal as quickly and easily as taking a breath, and; an individual who can create a variety of complex chemical compounds in his own body at will and vent them through his pores.
And somewhere, hidden in this gallery of powerful, influential, unstoppable people… is the one who set all of this off, the one who caused Rook Thomas to lose herself.
Common practice and the laws of nightmarish manifestations dictated that it would be the last door along the hallway and that there would be a moment of stark horror.
There are two separate baddies tucked within The Rook: first, there is our primary aforementioned mystery individual within the Checquy who essentially destroyed Rook Thomas; but there is also potentially a second, much larger threat – to Britain and the world at large: the Belgian alchemists-turned-fleshcrafters, the Wetenschappeliijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen (The Scientific Brotherhood of Physicists), AKA the Grafters. This collective, thought to be destroyed, once posed the greatest threat the Checquy ever faced, and it’s up to Myfanwy Thomas to determine whether they are, indeed, climbing back into power to seek their revenge and complete their domination of the world, or if the events which seem to be related to the Grafters are actually the work of some fresh foe.
“The reason it’s called Gallows Keep is that, prior to the establishment of the current facility, human-shaped enemies of the Checquy were usually stored at the end of a rope. As it is, we still stage a fair number of hangings. And beheadings. And stakings. And burnings. And immersions in vats of distillate of eel.”
So, that’s all quite good. The plot – which focuses on Myfanwy trying to figure out who she’s going to be from here on out while simultaneously pinpointing which of her peers might have put her in this predicament to begin with and why – is excellent, and the Grafter subplot is seamlessly woven in with the two eventually overlapping and wrapping up quite nicely while still leaving a thread open for Book Two. Which leaves my only problem in this second read-through of The Rook, and that’s the frequent infodumps. Rook Thomas had just enough warning of her impending amnesia to prepare her replacement: she wrote letters to serve as guides, she prepared detailed files on individuals with whom she had frequent dealings, and she created a contingency plan complete with a new identity on the off-chance that the woman who awoke in her body would have no desire whatsoever to continue in her shoes. I tend to repeat quite frequently in reviews that I prefer to be shown rather than told things in novels, which is sort of what’s happening in The Rook, but not reeeeeaaaally – the information in the letters and files is necessary, and Myfanwy needs Thomas’s guidance to navigate the complex world of the Checquy, but it was sometimes hard to get through an entire chapter of “here’s who this person is, this is how we interact, this is what they’re known for,” etc.
“This should be a pleasant little interview. All I have to do is put on my scary face,” [said Myfanwy]. “You have a scary face?” Ingrid sounded skeptical. “Yes,” said Myfanwy indignantly, “I have a very scary face.” Ingrid surveyed her for a moment. “You may wish to take off the cardigan then, Rook Thomas,” she advised tactfully. “The flowers on the pockets detract somewhat from your menace.”
All in all, The Rook is a well-written novel which contains all of my favorite elements of urban fantasy: it’s fun, it’s new, and its heroine can and does hold her own. I plan to read the second installment in the series, Stiletto, which will no doubt makes its way to our Interim Reviews section next year.
What Thurow had done was in the best traditions of the British Empire: she had simultaneously discovered a species and gone to war with it.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): Gestalt, for possessing such a bizarre but intriguing and effective power, and Ingrid, for her loyalty, kindness, humor, and competence.
Elle Tea read the Amazon Kindle version of this selection.