The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, or the first great read of 2013

The Rook
Recommended for: people who like all those movies I mentioned
Read February 2013, read count: twice, sure to be more
★  ★  ★  ★  1/2

Finally! First great read of 2013. Admittedly, that’s because I’m hoarding Days of Blood & Starlight and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There like a survivalist with canned goods, or a chocoholic with a secret stash of Toblerone in the back of the freezer (not that I’m speaking from experience). And while I tempered down my five stars to a more reasonable four, the fact is this was a perfect read the first time through.I’ll save the detailed summary; this is one time when the blurb gets it right. It starts rather hard-core action movie: woman coming to consciousness in a midst of a circle of bodies, no memory of self or events, dripping from the rain and blood. She discovers an envelope in her pocket from the Myfanwy-That-Was. Soon it evolves into a James Bond-style government agency spy thriller crunched with identity disorientation of The Bourne Identity. Halfway through I realize O’Malley is channeling The Hitchhiker’s Guide, or at least Men In Black, and that the flashbacks felt a lot like X-Men. (I’m finding it disturbing that I’m describing a book by referencing movies. Is that acceptable in a book review?)

Narrative shifts between letters from Myfanwy-That-Was to the current scramble of Myfanwy-That-Is to solve the mystery of who is trying to kill her. While that had the potential to become a tiresome device, O’Malley uses it well, giving context to Newbie just before she needs to use it, cuing the reader at the same time. Sometimes Senior relates an incident, sometimes she lays out structure and organization, or gives a dossier on other characters. For the most part it was able to maintain pace and tension through the shifts. At times, O’Malley is tongue-in-cheek: right as Myfanwy thinks, “I suppose I should do some more homework on how this organization actually works,” the next section is from one of the letters, under the title of “How This Organization Actually Works.” I actually found it rather delightful, highlighting the mental similarities in how they process information.

As the story develops, Myfanwy starts to take on her own personality, more abrupt and direct than the prior, who she now thinks of as “Thomas,” their last name. I thought the transition between the two was handled well, and as the story developed, I cared just as much about what happened to Thomas and wanted to know her story, even though I knew where it would end (here’s where my habit of peeking at the end of books comes in handy; it’s kind of like the book is a spoiler for it’s own self because we know Thomas is ‘dead,’ or at least, gone). I enjoyed Myfanwy’s character breaks, and it set the stage for gentle humor as she responded almost–but not quite–in character:
“An emergency has emerged, and both you and Rook Gestalt have been summoned to an interrogation,” the secretary replied in an unruffled manner.
“Oh. Okay.” Myfanwy looked down and her desk, thought for a moment, and then looked up. “Are we getting interrogated, or are we doing the interrogating?” she asked.

Then there is:
“It’s time for your dinner with Lady Farrier.”
“Oh, crap,” she sighed, then noticed Clovis’s shocked expression. “I mean, oh, good, this should be delightful.”

The humor isn’t out front in the beginning, which now strikes me as one of the delightful parts about the writing. Tightly wound around an action core at the start, O’Malley sneaks in humor one subtle comment at a time, gradually becoming more absurd. The first hint that we aren’t in London any more comes about three chapters in when we meet Rook Gestalt, really one of the more innovative creations in sci-fi/fantasy literature that I’ve happened upon. One mind, four bodies. I found myself trying to wrap my head around that one (somewhat distracted by comparing it with Zaphod and his two heads) and just got rather smacked with the possibilities. By the end, the absurd veered out of control at a couple of points, but for the most part O’Malley was able to maintain the balance between chuckles and tension.

Before too long, the American version of the Court comes to call, and the subtlety gloves come off when the American Bishop Shantay and Myfanwy take on some fungus–after lunch, of course.

“‘That is experience talking,’ said Shantay. ‘In these situations the glass is always half-empty.’
‘Always,’ confirmed the Bishop. ‘Right until it fills up with some sort of spectral blood that grows into a demon entity.’

‘I’ll kill you first,’ promised Myfanwy in a cold voice. ‘I’ll kill you twice if I feel like it.’

Truly riveting fun, exactly what I needed after an awful start to the week–it was the ideal book experience of immersion and diversion. Highly recommended to anyone who likes a dose of humor with their surreal action-spy-mystery thriller.

Four out of five stars. Or are they?

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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4 Responses to The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, or the first great read of 2013

  1. Pingback: Pacific Fire by Greg Van Eekhout | book reviews forevermore

  2. neotiamat says:

    Read it, loved it. Myfanwy is just a magnificent character, and I liked the approach used to detail the complex-yet-easy-to-grasp world that developed. I think what I particularly liked was that it treated the idea of ‘Secret Superhero Agency’ as a bureaucracy, with all that implies, and at the same time came up with very interesting powers and characters — Gestalt was fascinating, the antagonists terrifying.

    I think in a few places it went a bit overboard (for ostensibly skilled retainers, the Chequy’s men sure do drop like flies), but overall it was a very good mixture of action, comedy, and even tragedy (seeing Thomas’s slow acceptance and planning for her fate was heartbreaking).

    • thebookgator says:

      I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it–I recognize it has enough peculiarities that not everyone will, but I thought it was rather fun. And in the movie vein, it probably doesn’t bear too close of an examination, but I enjoyed it.

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