The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley
January 23, 2012
The opening words of this novel are, “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” That sentence, and the premise it delivers so well, hooked me from the start. The body in question belongs to Myfanwy Thomas, a young woman who was made aware that an unknown enemy will erase her personality, her memory, and her very identity, leaving a stranger in her body. That stranger, helped by detailed notes from her predecessor, jumps back into Myfanwy’s life in order to find the person behind the attack.
Pretending to be the Myfanwy that the world already knows is no easy task. That Myfanwy has a meek personality, an unusual ability that she hates to use, and a tendency to hide in the background. She administrates a division of The Chequy, a secretive government agency made to protect the United Kingdom from supernatural threats, and she has a great memory for small details about the history and workings of the organization. The new Myfanwy knows only what she finds in the notes and files that she’s been left, and while she has similar skills and tendencies, she shows a level of assertiveness that surprises her coworkers.
The New Myfanwy / Original Recipe Myfanwy divide could have gotten confusing fast, but it was handled well. We get to know the first woman only through her letters and other people’s recollections of her. Her writing style doesn’t always mesh with the shy, retiring person we’re told about. At first that seemed inconsistent, but then it left me with the impression that Myfanwy’s new personality was similar to how she might have been without the childhood trauma that she faced. I liked that the author put real effort into exploring Myfanwy’s identity issues rather than just using it as a hook for the story.
The setting hits a great balance between the bureaucratic realities of Myfanwy’s office and the strangeness the things they deal with, which is a relief considering that the other supernatural agency books I’ve read stray predictably into ridiculous levels of weirdness or Bond-film badassery. The people of the Chequy appreciate the seriousness of their responsibility, and I liked that Myfanwy always took a moment to think about the victims that her enemies left behind. The Chequy’s traditional, chess-based structure, full of overlapping responsibilities and outdated ideas, provides good opportunity for drama. Myfanwy’s colleagues were all interesting, and I was glad we got to know them a little.
The first third feels a little uneven, probably because it starts off with some really cool action and intrigue, and then we get a lot of Myfanwy reading letters. The letters were good moments for characterization and introspection, but they did get exposition-heavy as well. Things evened out once I got further into the book, and it couldn’t have been too terrible a drag on the pace considering that I devoured the whole thing in a couple of days. The placement and specifics of one letter made a final twist too obvious, though.
There were some fun moments, but the book sometimes felt like it was trying too hard in the comedy department. Character descriptions could also have been improved, it felt like we were too often told about people based on how attractive Myfanwy thought they were (and in what way).
The only thing that seriously bothered me was Myfanwy’s nasty tendency to be snippy about the looks of other women she met, to the point of making a mental joke about hoping one woman had slept her way to the top (presumably because she shouldn’t get to be both beautiful and good at her job). That line and several similar moments stood out, especially because the book was filled with competent, proactive female characters. Do super-powered secret agents really need to be so superficial and jealous of each other? It’s unlikeable and unnecessary and just plain yicky. Those bits were also among the very few moments that made me remember I was reading a male author writing from a woman’s perspective.
Despite my few issues, I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone looking for an urban fantasy novel that avoids that cookie-cutter feel. I hope we get to read more about this world.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.