Review: The Rook

In the wealth of writing that is now available it is hard to determine whether any novel is truly original. The Rook, the debut novel by Canberran author Daniel O’Malley, is a novel that treads across multiple genres including elements of detective fiction, fantasy, supernatural and spy thrillers. With an intriguing backdrop of a British organisation – the Checquy – whose members display a range of supernatural phenomena. This intriguing novel of contemporary fantasy is topped off by the central investigator being a victim and awakening in a park with no clue as to who or what she is. Despite this complete amnesia, Myfanwy Thomas nevertheless is a well-rounded and complex character; as she stumbles through the world, guided by mysterious letters from her pre-amnesiac self who she labels as ‘Thomas.’ She must both determine who she was and who she will be.

These letters frame the direction of the novel from its very opening lines.

Dear You,

The body you are wearing used to be mine.

The scar on the inner left thigh is there because I fell out of a tree and impaled my leg at the age of nine. ……. But you probably care little about this body’s past. After all, I’m writing this letter for you to read in the future. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is because it would be necessary.

The complicated answer could take a little more time.

Though information dumps such as these letters are not uncommon in genre fiction, they are often frowned upon usually because they feel inauthentic, stilted and forced, particularly if they are delivered in the form of dialogue. But what makes these letters work is that they are intriguing in a way that is like a detective novel building expectation and clues as well as somehow working as a support base for Myfanwy. These letters also help to serve as a way of building the identity of Thomas, making the reader becoming sorrowful as to her ‘death’ by showing her capability as a character, eliciting empathy through the intelligence and keen perception of her written monologue. While Thomas is the victim, it is her thorough preparation that gives Myfanwy the tools to deal with the events that unfold in the novel.

It’s highly effective, presenting the central problem of the protagonist; their complete amnesia, while presenting the central question: how has this happened? The opening also helps to flesh Thomas out as a well-rounded individual; the scar on her left thigh is a key point raised again, and it helps the novel become more real with human problems. Myfanwy is following in the steps of a person, not a superhero. This is probably how The Rook best subverts its espionage leanings, as well as some of the tropes of fantasy; instead of a smouldering, dark conflicted super spy, we find a 30 year-old capable administrator with social issues and lingering childhood trauma. Instead of a ‘chosen one’ type superhero, you have a woman stumbling into a life she doesn’t recall. Because Myfanwy does not subscribe to a traditional role, it allows O’Malley to build a point of view which is uniquely her own. We fully understand the world that Myfanwy has stepped into and her difficulty in having to learn to imitate herself. The novel poses an interesting question on identity and the old question of nature verses nurture as Myfanwy becomes her own character entirely.

The Checquy is the secret organisation where Myfanwy works an organisation that is best described as a cross between MI5 and the X-Men. Its main mission is to handle any supernatural threats to the British Isles. Its members include a woman who can invade your dreams, a child with a psyche link to every left handed person on the planet, and an individual with four bodies. O’Malley also manages to make this organisation feel like an institution of the British Isles constructing an intense history tied to that of England with its own threats foes and customs.

Despite having characters with fantastical, and at times ridiculous abilities, The Rook captures a very espionage feeling to the organisation that is the Checquy. This is best seen in The Checquy leaders known as The Court, they include a shameless Lothario in the vein of James Bond, while the Lady Farrier, the perfect example of aristocratic England, has a lot in common with the James Bond character M. Yet despite The Court being Myfanwy’s superiors and colleges none of these characters are treated with reverence. They are treated as flawed human beings, and sometimes as objects of amusement, which somehow never takes them away from their core traits. This allows O’Malley to subvert the tropes that these characters invoke.

The Court is also important because they function in The Rook similarly to the list of suspects in a crime novel. Myfanwy, thanks to Thomas’s letters, knows one of The Court has caused her brain wipe but not whom. This creates an interesting paradigm as we are introduced to the dossiers that Thomas wrote on each of the members of The Court before we are introduced to them. Myfanwy has to pretend to trust colleagues, one of which we know has and will move against her.

The Rook is a novel which constantly surprises the reader. With a protagonist who is both intriguing and immensely relatable, in a world with an appreciation for the absurd which somehow doesn’t seem to take away from the genuine tension within the plot. It is a novel that is not afraid to make fun of itself or its characters. But somehow important events, such as agents dying on missions, don’t feel haphazard and the seriousness of the organisation always shines through. The Rook understands the nature of humanity as varied, complex multifaceted and also funny. It is a novel that is extremely well constructed, with a protagonist, who is not only interesting, but also fundamentally original, whose intelligence neither feels false nor extraordinary, but self-deprecating in a way that somehow seems fundamentally British.

Miles Spink

The Rook

By Daniel O’Malley

HarperCollins Publishers

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