The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Published by Head of Zeus, January 2013
Originally published US, 2012, by Mulholland Books.
Review by Mark Yon
Dan Beiger reviewed this one for SFFWorld on its US release in March 2012, and highly recommended it, so I was quite pleased when I received it for its UK release from new publisher Head of Zeus.
It’s a combination of mystery whodunnit, spy novel, The X-Files and the world of the X-Men, as we begin with our protagonist Myfanwy (pronounced, weirdly, Miff-un-ee, rhyming with Tiffany) finds herself in a place she doesn’t recognise, in a body she doesn’t know and surrounded by dead people in a park.
She then follows a paper-trail of information-in-envelopes left by the person she is/was, travelling from place to place whilst working out who she is and what she’s doing. Myfanwy discovers that she is a Rook, an agent for the covert service, the Checquy, and seems to have been betrayed by a colleague, at present unknown, but seemingly one of seven in The Court (the leading hierarchy of the Checquy).
The main plot is therefore to discover the traitor, stop them harming the Checquy and bring them to justice, not to mention helping Myfanwy return to where she came from and discover her real identity.
Though this one is pretty fast paced from the start, it’s not without its difficulties. The first hundred pages are mainly spent in following the new Myfanwy getting herself up to speed, and reading the correspondence left by the original Myfanwy (Myfanwy-1) to the new Myfanwy (Myfanwy-2 – confused yet?) telling her everything she needs to know, her life story and the back-history of The Court. It’s good, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was a rather unsophisticated means of telling all that background. Not only are the letters from Myfanwy-1 very long, they are rather rambly – where did she find the time to write them (and multiple copies at that) whilst simultaneously holding down what seems to be quite an important job?
The second major issue for me was that Myfanwy-2, in her new role as Myfanwy-1, clearly starts to behave oddly as soon as she gets into The Rookery. Being part of an important covert society would suggest to me that any changes of that nature would, at the very least, make her co-workers suspicious, if not downright hostile, as the seemingly rather mousy Myfanwy-1 turns into the rather more strident Myfanwy-2. Yet she seems to carry it off without so much of a raised eyebrow. Although this is explained later in the novel, it does seem a little convenient, at first.
Allowing for this, once the set-up is up and running, we are involved in a plot to overthrow The Court from the long-time adversaries (from Belgium!), The Grafters, whose technological developments allow them to control people. Myfanwy finds herself in the middle of an international issue, which brings in the foreign equivalent of the Court from the US, The Croatoan, where the Rooks are called Bishops.
Though there’s places in the plot where things happen rather too conveniently (and was it really necessary to bring in a family element to the plot?) in the end I was prepared to forgive a lot with this book. What keeps the reader going is that the characters generally are a lot of fun. They are such a varied and entertaining lot, from Gestalt, the personality in more than one body, to Alrich, vampire, to the flexible yet amenable Gubbins. Such a miscellany of misfits are varied and appealing enough to hold the reader’s attention.
Also notable was the world-building, with an impressively thought out global network, an entertaining back-history and organisational structure, combining the historical values and mannerisms of an ancient court with the modern structures required for a busy and viable organisation. And, despite my issues with occasional plot convenience, there’s an attention-grabbing incident about halfway through the book that shows that the author is prepared to do some brave and original things that can keep the reader guessing.
Though there are some decidedly icky moments along the way, there is a nice sense of humour throughout that keeps the absurd on the right side of plausibility. Combined with the odd moment of pathos, it’s a tricky balance, but on the whole is well done.
This one surprised me by being more fun than it had right to be. Though in places it was like a rather over-egged dessert, and it’s not a deep read by any means, it was in the end nicely paced, engaging and thoroughly entertaining. I think this series has legs – I’d be very interested to read the next, which can only be a good thing.
Well done to Head of Zeus: I think this only bodes well for their future development.
Mark Yon, December 2012/January 2013