Monday, December 12, 2011
"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.
Normally I write my own synopsis when reviewing a book (I guess I like to torture myself) but the official synopsis for this book starts with the opening line of the book-- and it perfectly establishes the tone of The Rook by Daniel O'Malley.
"The Rook" is basically the story of two Myfanwy Thomases. The first one we never officially meet: she exists in the letters (a suitcase full) that she writes to the second Myfanwy-- the one who wakes up with two black eyes and her memory scrubbed. The idea of having Myfawny write letters to herself is a clever device that neatly side-steppes the common predictability of a story centered around an amnesiac. Myfawny has the information she needs at hand--if only she can read the letters fast enough.
But there is so much more to "The Rook" than someone trying to shake loose some lost memories. The Myfawny who only survives through the letters is as distinct a personality as the one who wakes up. The letters she writes, each starting with the salutation Dear You, are meticulously detailed and act as a window to the past and introduce each key character along the way. The structure of the story is inventive and greatly satisfying because Myfawny literally acts as her own protector and doesn't need to rely on some half-baked romantic interest to save her.
The story is an urban fantasy, of sorts, in that it is set in modern day London. But the supernatural agency that Myfanwy works for exists in its own little world with posh offices and an elaborate boarding school that churns out a devoted army of supernatural agents ready to defend the world against all otherworldly threats. The old Myfanwy had the power, but not the motivation to use it, and made her way up the power structure by an uncommon talent for organization. But the new Myfanwy only has the letters, written by her hyper-organized alter-ego, to guide her and a new willingness to use her powers--and her journey is by turns harrowing and hilarious.
I thoroughly enjoyed "The Rook." I loved the way the story was told from the alternating perspectives of Myfanwy's letters and the real-time person trying to sort out her bizarre circumstances. But it isn't only that literary device that makes this a great book. It's also tremendously imaginative. There might be times where certain ideas seem borrowed, like that of a boarding school for super-powered children, but O'Malley's version is gloriously strange and humorous in it's own very unique way. This is a book with dragons and vampires and people with tentacles and tear-gas emitting sweat; you might also see a child that has the power to unleash a nuclear explosion with a single thought. This isn't some lightweight paranormal fantasy, it's a book you can sink your teeth into. It's complex, original, sometimes violent and altogether satisfying. The minute I was done with it I wanted to sit down and read it again.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.