Why did it take me so long to get to this? The Rook is clever urban fantasy, set in England. Superficially similar to Charles Stross’ Laundry Files in setting and tone, it is more focused on the institutions created to deal with the supernatural rather than the supernatural itself. Daniel O’Malley balances a complicated plot quite deftly, and as we rocketed towards the climax, I literally didn’t want to put the book down. There are some rough edges to it, some clumsy exposition and some offbeat characterization. That didn’t detract too much from my enjoyment, though.
Myfanwy Thomas begins the book with amnesia. Her entire life has been stolen from her, rendering her a new person. Over the coming days she pieces together information about her previous self from notes left by herself (whom she dubs “Thomas”) and slots into her life as a Rook in the secret society known as the Checquy. But someone within the Chequy is trying to kill her, because she knows too much….
O’Malley doesn’t initially dump too much exposition on us, and this works quite well. It’s only gradually that we learn about the Checquy’s past, Myfanwy’s role and responsibilities as a Rook, and even her powers. The first part of the book is more of a series of episodes that introduce us to various characters and allow us to see Myfanwy establish her new personality. I really enjoy amnesiac protagonists, especially when they have to hide their memory loss from others. The way that Thomas has left letters for her future self is so foreboding, and it’s also very sad. Thomas basically died, even if her body lived on—it’s such a tragic story, and that really comes through in the way we learn about the events leading up to Thomas’ “death”.
There’s an offbeat sense of humour to this book, and the odd thing (from my perspective) is how sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. By and large I really appreciate Myfanwy’s irreverent kind of tone—it reminds me a bit of Crichton from Farscape. This manifests in particular when Myfanwy has to attend an operation on site. I loved the interaction between Myfanwy and Shantay. Yet as the story approaches the climax and events accelerate, Myfanwy’s chill starts to feel too chill. Like, you’re about to take on an enemy within the Court of the Checquy itself, and you’re cracking wise with your secretary and complaining about how you haven’t had enough sleep this weekend? I don’t know. The whole tone of the last act feels off, and while it didn’t ruin the book for me, it feels like a significant flaw.
I came to this book for the promise of a kind of supernatural political mystery. The Rook delivers on that, and then some, although the writing doesn’t always hold up. This was a pleasant way to spend a couple of afternoons, and I might enjoy the sequel at some point.