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The Rook - Daniel O'Malley

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Rook - Daniel O'Malley

Daniel O'Malley's debut novel features the tagline, On Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service. It's an apt description of The Rook which to describe it more verbosely is James Bond meets Harry Potter if Money Penny was the main character. Cool, right? I thought so too. Unfortunately what begins as an entertaining and clever urban fantasy novel descends into a poorly structured, infodumptastic (made up word!) narrative that can't get out of its own way.

Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy. It's their job to battle the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Myfanwy is more Urkel than Stefan. Despite her incredible power to control living matter she's become a desk bound budget hawk with the social skills of a dim witted honey badger. One night she 'wakes up' in a London park surrounded by bodies with no recollection of who she is or how she got there, a letter in her coat pocket the only clue. To find out who she is, who wants her dead, and why, Myfanwy will have to rely on herself, and her letters to herself from her other self.

If reviewing The Rook was a simple matter of endorsing its concept, the quality of its prose, and the strength of its characters, this would be a much shorter review. I give O'Malley's novel high marks in all three categories. The secret government organization is always a blast in light of the general predisposition to believe governments hide all kinds of awesome things. Along with the premise, O'Malley demonstrates excellent control of the action. He never leaves anything unclear and I never lacked a comprehensive picture of the scenes or the characters in them.

Those characters for the most part dazzle, with one major exception -- Dark-Phoenix-Myfanwy. She's not poorly drawn, but in comparison to a vibrant surrounding cast, and more importantly her previous incarnation, she falls short. While her humor is wry and she's an extroverted go-getter, the structure of the character is teeth-grindingly expected. I struggled to suspend my disbelief over her immediate and constant capability, as well as the response of a top-secret government organization to her obvious personality changes. 

Meanwhile, Jean-Grey-Myfanwy, who O'Malley only shows via letter, is utterly compelling. Her weaknesses and strengths, so distant from the expected 'hero' of the urban fantasy paradigm, provide The Rook with a unique flavor it would otherwise have lacked. Likewise, many of the ancillary cast members such as Myfanwy's personal assistant Ingrid, her bodyguard Anthony, and her Rook counterpart Gestalt, provide a staggering amount of life to the novel given their relative insignificance.

It's unfortunate then that The Rook reads like it was written for the sole purpose of showcasing O'Malley's imaginings of the Chequy and its inner-workings. Parts of the narrative (guestimate around 25%) are told through the text of dozens of letters -- some of which move the conspiracy plot along, others that simply provide background. Letter after letter, especially in the early going, reads like an RPG dossier, dumping a kitchen-sink's-worth of world building into the reader's lap. To paraphrase one example:
Myfanwy: Oh look, there are these elite units in the Chequy called the Barghast. I wonder if I wrote a letter to myself about this because I sure don't remember anything. 
Old Myfanwy: I thought you might want to know about the Barghat. They're special forces and let me give you their history. 
[Three Pages Later]

Old Myfanwy: And that's what the Barghast are. 
Myfanwy: Well, I'll be.
Many of the asides have little to no bearing on moving the narrative forward, instead focusing on self-indulgent information apropos of nothing. I found myself putting The Rook down every time a letter surfaced. I'd roll my eyes and go do something else. The phenomenon worked both ways. Once I returned to the novel, I'd get into the letter, engrossed in Original-Recipe-Myfanwy, and dread the return to Extra-Crispy.

Furthermore, why the hell wouldn't Disk-Format-Error-Myfanwy just read all the damn letters in the first weekend? O'Malley dribbles out the left behind knowledge all the way to the final pages. Obviously done for dramatic effect, I found it a lot more annoying than nail biting. My frustration stems from the fact that the amnesia story line wasn't necessary other than as a means to world build, which to be quite honest feels like a cheap gimmick.

Despite the negatives, and they are legion as they relate to pace and structure, I can still recommend The Rook to some readers, with some trepidation. The premise and characters are good enough to provide substantial entertainment and the conspiracy/mystery is well executed. I think many urban fantasy acolytes will find a great deal to enjoy here. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those. For me, the removal of the amnesia plot device in its entirety would have made for a stronger novel. It would have allowed the world building to occur organically and provided an opportunity for actual character growth as opposed to the convenient manifestation of the stereotypical snarky no-nonsense female urban fantasy protagonist.

But, that isn't the book Daniel O'Malley wrote. So I instead I can only say, maybe the next one will be better. I hope so.

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At March 15, 2012 at 9:29 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

So, an excess of worldbuilding, at the expense of other virtues. Hmmm.

At March 15, 2012 at 10:10 AM , Blogger Scott said...

Is it wrong to have wished Cheryl had shown up in this review?


At March 15, 2012 at 10:15 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Yes...I think Cheryl is best saved for awful books.But that's really Justin's decision.

This book was not a total loss, according to the review. So it doesn't feel "Cheryl worthy"

At March 15, 2012 at 10:26 AM , Blogger Justin said...

What Paul said. I actually enjoyed the book, but it wasn't easy or fun to read. I know that makes no sense. Oh well.

At March 15, 2012 at 10:31 AM , Anonymous Bob said...

I personally loved this book, but my fantasy leanings are definitely different from yours. I liked the use of letters as worldbuilding for the first half of the novel. I think in the second half, when he would leave you in the midst of a climatic action sequence, for an a letter it was a bit frustrating. Especially because I was doing the audiobook version, which makes it nearly impossible to rush through those parts.

As someone who in more on the urban fantasy/portal fantasy side of the fence, I really enjoyed it, but I can recognize some of its faults as well.


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