The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. Highly recommended!
Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything. Maybe it’s the summer, maybe I’m just lazy, I don’t know. Either way, it’s time to exercise the keyboard for creative pursuits again.
This post is about a book called “The Rook,” by Daniel O’Malley. It’s an urban fantasy (a genre that I’ve never sought out, besides Harry Potter, which I’m not sure counts) set pretty much in modern-day England. A family member got it for me on Kindle, and I’m really glad they did. This was an awesome book, and if the author writes more in this world I will definitely read it.
The book follows the story of a woman in her thirties who wakes up in a park in the rain. She has no idea who she is, or where she is, but she’s surrounded by a pile of bodies wearing latex gloves. So, ick, right? Searching for clues for who she might be, she looks through her pockets. In one of her coat pockets, she finds a letter addressed “To You.” Reading it, the letter explains pretty much exactly the situation she finds herself in, and tells her that she’s been targeted by an unknown assassin. It also gives her instructions for getting to safety.
In a hotel (she was also told how to get money), she ditches her filthy and soaked clothes to the hotel laundry and cleans up. Looking in the mirror, she realizes why she got such funny looks while checking in – she’s got pretty much the worst black eyes (on both eyes!) that a person could have.
After resting, she sits down to another letter that explains to her that the body she’s in used to belong to a woman named Myfanwy Thomas, and it gives her a choice. She can leave the past of whoever Myfanwy is behind and adopt a new and completely anonymous life (the identity of which was completely prepared by the former Myfanwy prior to whatever happened), or she can step into Myfanwy’s former life, and try to figure out who was out to get her.
Initially, the woman’s choice is clear. Waking up in the situation and state she did, she’s pretty inclined to call it a day and live comfortably. Seeing the meticulous and complete way in which Myfanwy set up the new identity (complete with a fully furnished and stocked apartment and pretty much unlimited cash), she has no doubt she’d live comfortably. Soon, though, she comes to the realization that knowing nothing about Myfanwy or who was after her, she might walk right into her own death without realizing it. That, and she feels like she owes the woman the truth for the effort that was put into making her safe.
The choice is down to opening one of two letters from Myfanwy: one means a new life, and the other is… well, to this woman, a new life. It’s kind of a Matrix-like red-pill blue-pill moment. One letter is a comfortable future and anonymity, and the other feels a little like stepping into the lion’s den. She decides to step in and see how deep her body’s former life goes.
She’s left with a big pile of letters, and a big purple binder. The letters contain Myfanwy’s story leading up to the night in the park, and the binder becomes kind of a how-to manual of all the mechanics for Myfanwy’s job. This is where the fun really starts.
The woman – now accepting to be Myfanwy – finds out that she’s a high-ranking official in a government organization called “The Chequy.” The major positions in this organization are named for chess pieces, and hers is the position of “Rook.” The Rooks are seen as the field people, the ops people, and the more Myfanwy learns about her former self, the more she’s surprised that this woman was inserted into this position in the first place. Though an organizational, procedural and financial genius, she was extremely meek and loathe to do anything resembling field work. That was okay, though; the other Rook is something special.
You see, the Chequy is not just any government organization, it’s an organization specifically tasked with dealing with and covering up supernatural and otherworldly events and manifestations. Not only do they try to keep these things under wraps, but all the high ranking members of the Chequy (including Myfanwy) have supernatural powers of their own. It’s kind of in the job requirements.
Now, that other Rook. Gestalt. He, no, it’s kind of like having four Rooks in one. It’s one mind that shares four bodies. This character is massively disturbing and kind of awesome all at once. Myfanwy’s other contemporaries are no less interesting. Vampires (a really cool interpretation of vampires, I normally don’t like that genre), contortionists, mind-readers, dream-readers… the list goes on. And one of them, according to the letters, is out to kill Myfanwy.
First day on the job. In the body of someone who’s had the job for years. No pressure, right? It’s awkward, but with the binder’s help, she gets through it. She has no idea how Myfanwy used to act, so she wings pretty much everything. Even to her poor assistant Ingrid, who is surprised at every new quirk.
Myfanwy gets it done, though. Lucky for her, she seems to have inherited the clerical genius of her former self, and also retained the supernatural powers. She’s also seemingly inherited none of the meekness, and the new woman has some serious courage about her.
That’s where I’ll leave it. With the stage set, you really must read the rest of this book for yourself to bask in its brilliance. I honestly couldn’t stop with this one. It’s a mystery, fantasy, character study, horror, science fiction, urban drama, action novel. Throughout the book, the new Myfanwy gains confidence, and you read all of her former self’s letters as she reads them. They make Myfanwy an incredibly rich, incredibly deep character… though she never actually appears in the pages of this novel. The new Myfanwy grows, too. She gains confidence, learns about herself, her past, her future, and grows a serious pile of courage in the face of the unfamiliar.
It’s not all serious and triumphant, though. The tone is half of what makes the book. Myfanwy is a woman in her thirties, and the author does an absolutely wonderful job of capturing the personality of that person when dropped into this unfamiliar situation. She faces everything with a “what the hell, are you serious?” kind of attitude, and jumps into every new requirement her job throws at her with a shrug and an “oh well, might as well try it out.” I swear, for half of the book she just seems outright annoyed at the stuff going on around her. Never afraid, never frantic, never cowering in a corner, just honestly annoyed. “Oh what next? Of course, of course.” I loved this woman, she was so fun to read. That’s why I’m hoping we get a sequel!
I’ve read a bunch of books this year (I’ll get back to writing about them), and I could probably safely rank this one as the best. It was just a wild, fun, creative ride through a really neat world. Sure, it has throwbacks to the secret world of magic that’s the basis of the story in the Harry Potter novels, but for most of those books, the story happens in that world – you’re never really “in the streets.” The Rook happens in broad daylight in the streets all the normal citizens inhabit, and it’s all the Rook can do to keep things under control.
Seriously, read this one, it’s fantastic.