The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The body you are wearing used to be mine.
So begins The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. The best things about this book are that it gets off to a good start, the setting is great (lots of interesting supernatural threats), and the amnesia plot line is handled well.
Amnesia plots have been done before, of course, so what matters in this day and age is how such a plot is executed. O’Malley executes it well, IMHO. One reason is that he handles the pacing well. That first sentence rockets you off on the journey. The second reason is that due to magical prophecies, the original version of the heroine, Myfanwy Thomas, knew she was going to lose her memory before she actually lost it. This allows her to leave helpful notes for her new self, something I’ve never seen done before in an amnesia story. You might think these notes would make it too easy for the new Myfanwy to cope with her challenges, but it’s not so, principally because she is a member of a top-secret organization – the Checquy – that deals with a bewildering profusion of supernatural threats to the UK in particular and the world in general. Dragons, sentient mind-reading mold (yes, sentient mind-reading mold), teleporters, distributed hive minds, vampires (wheat-market-manipulating and non-wheat-market-manipulating), future-foretelling ducks, etc.
A few reviewers have objected to “infodumps” that the original Myfanwy has left in the form of those explanatory notes for her future self. These notes didn’t bug me in the least, and I never had a feeling of being subjected to infodumps. In fact, it didn’t occur to me to notice any “infodumps” until I skimmed a couple of other people’s reviews after I’d finished the novel. What they really are is clues in a murder mystery.
Some minor deficiencies:
An American character who works for the U.S. analogue of the Checquy is introduced around Ch 15. She has no essential role in the story and I wonder, in retrospect, why she was included.
Also around Ch 15, the style decays suddenly and mysteriously. Dialogue suddenly becomes clunky, though this has not happened noticeably before that point. E.g., dialogue might contain unnecessary and/or silly attributions. Here’s a (made-up) example:
“I’ll hate you forever!” Jane said angrily.
The “angrily” is redundant, of course. This could simply be,
“I’ll hate you forever!” Jane shouted.
Or even just
“I’ll hate you forever!”
if it’s clear from context who’s speaking.
The verb “snapped” is also used profligately. This is an over-used verb in modern dialogue. People don’t actually snap at each other that often, and generally when they do in fiction, the words themselves, perhaps with an accompanying exclamation point, can usually convey the snapping without the author having to belabor the point. E.g.,
“Don’t touch my coffee cup!”
No “he snapped” is necessary.
Speaking of dialogue, commas that are usually present in English-language fiction are absent in much of this book. E.g., consider
“Call the police,” Jane said.
The comma just after “police” is standard in English-language dialogue. But it is absent in many lines of dialogue in Rook. So we get
“Call the police” Jane said.
which is jarring to the reader’s eye. Is this an error by an inexperienced copy-editor, or is the publisher trying to save money on ink by eliminating commas?
But overall, The Rook is a fun “summer read,” as people say, and I can recommend it on those grounds, though not on “this is a classic for the ages” grounds.
There are a lot of characters, and they have a bedazzling array of supernatural abilities. It’s kind of like X-Men meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Bourne Identity. Page 123 (of the hardcover edition I read) has a list of all the people at the Court, which is the governing body of the Checquy. I referred to that list frequently after that point, and I suggest you bookmark it when you come to it for easy reference later.
I hope that in the sequel, which I am certainly going to read, the original Myfanwy Thomas is revived and melds with her new personality. Otherwise we have a murder that is not sufficiently avenged. After all, your memories, personality and skills, etc., are you. When those were destroyed, the original Myfanwy Thomas was killed. Not metaphorically killed, literally killed. (This novel is a murder mystery as well as lots of other things.) I want not only revenge, but the original murdered girl to be reanimated to do the avenging. Here’s hoping.
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