The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Black Rook in Rainy Weather (Review: The Rook, Daniel O'Malley)

The Rook
Daniel O'Malley
Hachette 2012

“Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Not exactly what you want to read when you find yourself in the pouring rain, surrounded by prone, gloved bodies and without the vaguest clue about who you are or how you got there. Such is the beginning of Myfanwy (rhymes with ‘Tiffany’) Thomas’s adventure in Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook. Seemingly thrust into the middle of an unknown life, Thomas struggles to find out what has happened to her and why her apparent assailants all seem to be wearing latex gloves The truth is revealed in a letter found stuffed in her pocket.

Myfanwy is no ordinary woman, as you may have guessed. Far from it, she is a Rook, a high-level operative in the Chequy, the ultimate NGO. Where MI6 deals with spies and suchlike, existing deep within the folds of government, the Chequy is something of a rogue player themselves. Their self-appointed mission carried out through the centuries of their cloaked existence, is to use the special abilities of their personnel to deal with supernatural threats to the realm. In Myfanwy’s case, anyone touching her may find themselves in a spot of bother as she can manipulate nervous systems and navigate neural pathways on a whim. Her fellow agents possess all manner of similar bizarre powers, from exuding poisonous gases through their cores to visiting others in their dreams.

This bombshell and much more besides is revealed to Myfanwy through a series of letters from, well, herself. She has been the victim of a vicious assault, leaving her without a single memory of who she is or what she is capable of. Her former self, having pre-empted the attack, cunningly crafted a series of missives detailing everything she could possibly need in order to regain something of her identity and resolve the crisis which is apparently in full swing.

After a somewhat shaky start, including a second attempt on her life, Myfanwy’s indignation and will overcomes her fears and frustration. She dives headlong into her former life, determined to discover who ordered the operation which left her half a person. All signs point to someone within the organisation, leading to a near impossible balancing act; ferreting out the (exceptionally powerful and well-connected) traitor, relearning in days how to perform in a position which required years of experience to attain, and dealing with a series of crises which are affecting the nation with timing which seems anything but coincidental.

From the outset The Rook is all about fun. The atmosphere and setting bear an understandable resemblance to Charles Stross’s Laundry series, tongue in cheek humour mixing with the perfect amount of action and intrigue. However, instead of a bumbling James Bond character, Daniel O’Malley presents us with a strong female lead. In the opening pages of the book I was worried that Myfanwy’s initial confused state - moaning, self-obsessed and whiny - would drag the book down. My fears were soon allayed and by the final chapter she had developed perfectly into a heroine par excellence; confident, in full control of her powers and unflinching in her desire to root out those who crossed her.

One of the highlights of The Rook for me was the ingenious device employed in lieu of standard exposition. Many lesser authors, faced with explaining the superpowers, the history of the Chequy and the ongoing conspiracy within would have resorted to clumsy, stilted conversations or dreary monologues. By deciding to wipe his protagonists memory from the outset O’Malley introduced a much more enjoyable and readable alternative - the letters from Myfanwy to herself. In this way the lengthy exposition required becomes a natural part of the novel, slotting in seamlessly and with perfect timing. On any occasion when Myfanwy finds herself lacking knowledge on a particular subject she simply delves into her briefcase of correspondence.

It should also be noted that - as with so many books I find myself reading of late - The Rook is but the first part of a planned trilogy. The intrigue, betrayals and discoveries which line the pages of this novel are but a taste, setting the scene for grander events to come. This thought fills me with relish. On reading The Rook I was struck by the way in which so many of the events felt like the opening scenes of a movie. For a good three-quarters of the story I still felt as though we were merely being introduced to the characters and their situations rather than reaching a finale, and I mean this in the best way possible. The story got its hooks in me and they stayed there, to the point that genuine dismay started to set in when I realised my page count was almost up.

So, if you fancy a combination of secret agent shenanigans, psychic battles and inventive storytelling then The Rook should be right up your alley. Assuming you can handle the wait for the next two books...

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Rook is available now.

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