Monday, March 11, 2013

Book review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Goodreads summary: “The body you are wearing used to be mine.” So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her. 
She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own. 

In her quest to uncover which member of the Chequy betrayed her and why, Myfanwy encounters a person with four bodies, an aristocratic woman who can enter her dreams, a secret training facility where children are transformed into deadly fighters, and a conspiracy more vast than she ever could have imagined.

Thank you so much to all of the Cannonballers who recommended this! This book was a joy to read. I loved the characterization, the world-building, the mystery, and the humor. Oh, the humor! Both Myfanwys (rhymes with Tiffany) are full of delightfully wry quips and keen observations, and some of the other characters — particularly Ingrid, Myfanwy’s assistant — get in some good lines as well.

To elaborate a bit on some of the broad categories I just threw out there: first off, the characterization of Old Myfanwy (the one in the letters) vs. New Myfanwy (the one we read about in the present) is pretty stellar. Though most of the side characters don’t realize that NM is basically a new person, waking up after having her memory completely wiped of everything, they know something is different about her. OM is described as very, very good at her work, but very passive, non-confrontational, shy, and kind of a pushover. NM, on the other hand, speaks her mind candidly and has no issue taking control. That said, we the readers, being privy both to NM’s internal monologue and OM’s letters to NM, can see that both of these seemingly opposite personalities do spring from the same inherent foundation. Both are witty, observant, creative, and opinionated; it’s just that only one of them actually says out loud what she’s thinking. It’s a fun way to deconstruct the dichotomy of stock characters — the shy one vs. the outgoing one — by making them the same person and highlighting their similarities as much as their differences.

The mystery, here, was revealed in kind of an interesting way. Traditionally, one expects a lot of red herrings before finally getting to the bottom of it. Here, even though the “suspects” are all introduced as such, there aren’t much in the way of diversions or red herrings. I’m trying to dance around spoilers here, so I’ll just say that the initial mystery is actually wrapped up quicker than I expected, and the book goes on to uncover Bigger Bads and also give Myfanwy more time to acclimate to her life. In a lot of books, this would seem like weird filler, but in this one, the concept of Myfanwy basically being a newborn (though imbued with at least an adult level of common sense and some sort of formal education, I guess) and needing to learn her way through her highly unusual job is clever and entertaining enough that I still enjoyed sticking with her. The only way, I think, in which this kind of dragged is that sometimes, a chapter with New Myfanwy would end in a cliffhanger, and the next chapter would be a letter from Old Myfanwy. The letters are always relevant to the portion of the story we’re reading, as the implication is that NM had read that letter and would therefore be prepared for whatever she’s facing by the contents of that letter. So it makes sense why they are there, but they’re a little bit of a cheat in setting up the backstory. In any case, most of the time I liked the letters because I liked OM’s narration, but when they get stuck after a cliffhanger, I got impatient. It’s kind of easily fixed, though, by going to the next chapter and then coming back to the letter. And I did want to go back to the letters, because they were interesting!

Overall, this is my favorite book I’ve read so far for the Cannonball. I don’t really have much more to say beyond that.

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