Backlist Burndown: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
As book bloggers, sometimes we get so caught up reading review titles and new releases that we end up missing out on a lot previously published books. As a result, one of my goals this year is to take more time to catch up with my backlist, especially in my personal reading pile. And it seems I’m not the only one. Backlist Burndown is a new meme started by Lisa of Tenacious Reader. Every last Friday of the month, she’ll be posting a review of a backlist book and is inviting anyone interested to do the same. Of course, you can also review backlist books any day you want, as often you want, but be sure to watch for her post at the end of the month to link up!
This month, I’m busting the backlist with…
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal
Series: Book 1 of The Checquy Files
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (January 11, 2012)
Length: 486 pages
The Rook was a novel that had been sitting on my shelf for years, lying forgotten in spite of the repeated calls from my friends urging me to pick it up and read it. It finally took the arrival of a review copy of Stiletto to spur me into action, because nothing lights a fire under my butt quite like the news of an impending sequel. And in reading The Rook, I learned a couple of important lessons: first, I should always listen to my friends because when they tell me that a book is awesome, they are usually right; and second, sometimes it’s perfectly okay to procrastinate because at least now I don’t have wait as long to jump into book two. So there.
Seriously though, The Rook was a bucketload of fun. I was initially a little worried when the book opened and immediately I was plunged into an amnesia-type story, as I’ve had enough experience with those over the years to know they can be hit or miss. However, the writing was clever and tantalizing, encouraging me along despite my misgivings until other elements in the story kicked in and my doubts were dispelled altogether. The intro features our protagonist Myfanwy Thomas (rhymes with “Tiffany”) coming to in the middle of a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. Clutched in her hand is a letter addressed to her, apparently written by herself.
Myfanwy has no memory of who she is, but thanks to the letter she is able to piece together enough of her identity to work out what to do next. Thomas (the name she has taken to calling her pre-amnesic self) was something called a Rook, a high-ranking member of a clandestine government organization known as the Checquy—kind of like MI5 except they are charged with protecting the United Kingdom against all kinds of supernatural threats. Many of the Checquy’s agents are super-powered as well, including Myfanwy, who discovers from Thomas’ letters that she is endowed with a rare but potentially dangerous talent of her own. She soon learns that someone in the Checquy had betrayed her, and in order to find out who it is she must reintegrate herself in the organization and hope that no one would suspect her memory loss while also hiding the fact she knows more than she lets on as not to alert the traitor.
As I said, amnesia stories can either work really well for me or they can fall flat on their face, and happily this was a case of the former. Although the idea of a character working backwards to recover her lost memories is nothing new, the way it is done in The Rook feels very natural and creative, making this novel feel refreshingly original. Thomas’ letters to Myfanwy go beyond simply filling her in on who she is and what she does for a living; they also expand the world-building by providing a background to the Checquy and the other people who work there. Luckily for us, before her amnesia Thomas appears to have been something of an organizational wizard, putting together a binder of information about anything and everything about the Checquy, from employee profiles to the way the agency is structured. Myfanwy gets to find out more about her colleagues than she’d ever want to know, though as the reader I was completely fascinated by some of the details about those she works with, such as Rook Gestalt (a single mind who inhabits the bodies of quadruplets), Bishop Grantchester (who can expel chemical gases from his pores), Alrich (a vampire), Eckhart (who can manipulate metal with his bare hands), Lady Farrier (a leader of the Checquy who can enter dreams), Shantay (an American Bishop from the US version of the Checquy who can turn her body into metal), and many, many more.
In addition, some of Thomas’ anecdotes about her past experiences can almost be considered short stories themselves, and while I can understand how some readers might find such chapters superfluous and distracting, I personally adored them. A few of the stories, like the one about ill-fated dragon hatching or the incident with the fortune telling duck were downright hilarious in dark, morbid ways that meshed well with my sense of humor. As well, the various letters written by Thomas often contain hints or reference overlying themes that tie into the ultimate conclusion, letting the reader play detective along with Myfanwy as she pieces together her life and try to find clues to catch the traitor.
Best of all are the differences between Thomas and Myfanwy. Even though deep down Myfanwy knows they are the same person, her pre-amnesic self might as well be a complete stranger, which is why she gave her past self a separate identification in the first place. The Thomas she knows from the letters was a talented Rook but also painfully shy, which held her back from her full potential and made her fellow Court members look up on her with pity or scorn. However, the post-amnesic Myfanwy is more outspoken and confident with her supernatural abilities, making it extremely satisfying to watch her co-workers react to her new personality and stronger grasp of her powers.
It’s true that I didn’t know a whole lot about The Rook before I started it, but still, I hadn’t expected to be so thoroughly entertained. Now I can’t wait to dive into the next book! In the end Myfanwy accomplishes what she set out to do, but over the course of the novel she also mixes herself into a greater conspiracy involving the Grafters, a group that poses the greatest threat ever known to the Checquy. This larger storyline promises a lot more to come, and I’m really looking forward to continuing the series.