The body you are wearing used to be mine.
Ha, just kidding! That was actually the opening line to The Rook. As for you, I’ve never been in your body, I swear. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t be popping proud to wear your body—I’m sure it’s lovely, a fine specimen—but I’d rather wear mine. Unless you were four bodies. If you were four bodies (more on that later) and I could wear all of them at once, I might reconsider.
But now I’m worried this letter’s getting kind of creepy. Let’s get back to the novel, shall we?
I must admit, whenever a novel begins with a young woman standing in the rain surrounded by bodies wearing latex gloves, I start to cringe. (And not just because I have a latex allergy.) When that same young woman is also suffering from a rather nasty, i.e. all-encompassing, case of amnesia, my hand feels a strong urge to slap itself against my forehead. Repeatedly. And when the novel then throws super powers, vampires, slime monsters, international conspiracies, and an ultra-secret, evil-fighting government agency into the mix, well, I want to turn tail and run away as fast as I possibly can. After all, you might ask, do we really need another Hellboy or Torchwood?
The answer, delightfully, is yes.
Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook reaches into the oversized and worn barrel of sci-fi and fantasy conventions and emerges with a great big fistful of ass-kicking fun. (“A great big fistful of ass-kicking fun.” I know. Honestly, when I wrote that—about 20 seconds ago—I thought it sounded great. Now: not the catchiest phrase ever. Sadly, both my delete and backspace keys are presently on strike, so we’ll just have to go with it. At least I didn’t use “rip-snorting.” I’ve always wanted to use “rip-snorting,” but I’m trying really hard to resist the temptation.)
The hero of O’Malley’s terrific and sometimes stunning debut novel is Myfanwy Thomas. Myfanway knows this is her name (it’s Welsh!) because the previous Thomas knew she was going to be losing her memory and decided to write a bunch of letters to her successor explaining who she is and what she does. And what, pray tell, does Myfanwy Thomas do? She is a Rook. This means she has superpowers. This means she belongs to a very old, very hush-hush London-based group called the Checquy, whose sole purpose is to protect the British Isles from all the various unnatural things that would like to prey on the British Isles. Rook Thomas, as it turns out, is the Checquy’s chief administrator. This means our protagonist spends a lot of time filling out paperwork, taking phone calls, coordinating meetings, and balancing budgets—and doing all these things mostly from her office.
Oh, and did I mention that she manipulate your biology like you’re her own personal puppet? And did I forget to mention that she knows it was one of the organization’s high-ranking members who had her memory wiped, but that she doesn’t know who? It could be the woman who walks through people’s dreams. Or possibly the ex-soldier who can reshape any metal like it’s Play-Doh. Or maybe the fearsome Gestalt, who is actually one consciousness shared by four independent bodies. (See, I told you I’d get back to the four bodies thing.) And as if an internal conspiracy isn’t enough to keep Myfanwy Thomas busy, how about an invasion of England by a group of powerful, psychotic Belgians known as The Grafters? (Thomas’s reaction: We’re being invaded by evil Belgian fleshcrafters, and I have nothing to wear.)
I know, I know, it almost sounds like too much. But that’s what makes this novel so damned impressive. O’Malley actually pulls it off! The pacing is confident, the writing clean and straight-forward, and the author never lets his sense of humor get out of control. This is a funny novel, but don’t for a moment think it’s all tongue-in-cheek Grant Naylor or Douglas Adams. I’ve heard comparisons to Doctor Who; they’re not unwarranted. The Rook is full of irony, dry humor, sarcasm, absurdity, violence, slapstick, horror, and magic.
Now, yes, you should rush out and buy it, but know ahead of time that this is not a novel without flaws. Fortunately, O’Malley’s missteps are few. His prose is peppered with adverbs and adjectives that are meant to explain how his characters are speaking, which would be fine if they weren’t so unnecessary. He’s already done a wonderful job of establishing his characters; you and I don’t need to be told how they’re saying it because we can hear how they’re saying it while you’re reading. And the author does, it’s true, sometimes lose the voice of the original Thomas in some of the lengthier letters within the book. It’s a shame; she has a good voice.
But these are minor offenses. Daniel O’Malley gets away with them for a number of reasons. There’s the excellent plotting. The often hilarious dialogue. The amazing ability to offer up long passages of exposition so interesting and fun that even though you know you’re being fed a history lesson, you’re more than happy to lick your plate clean and ask for seconds. One of my favorite such passages involves vampires.
Yes, my earlier mention of vampires was no mistake: The Rook has them. They are not the focus, thankfully, but it’s worth pointing out that O’Malley has created a vampire unlike any you’ve ever seen. (Although if you’ve actually seen a vampire, perhaps we should be having a different conversation.) As much as I would love to tell you all about the vampires (or the dragons, or the Greek Woman, or the dozen or so other sly allusions and brilliant throw-aways in the book), I won’t. To do so would be to spoil the joy of finding out on your own. But I would like to share this little tidbit with you regarding the Checquy’s first encounter with a vampire:
What Thurow [a Checquy agent] had done was in the best traditions of the British Empire: she had simultaneously discovered a species and gone to war with it. Thus, the official position of the Checquy on vampires went almost instantly from “Don’t be ridiculous, you silly girl, there’s no such thing!” to “Right, they do exist, and they appear to be killing us.”
I must confess, I know Daniel O’Malley. We were both students at Michigan State University. He was always a voracious reader. I still remember when he told me I needed to read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Last year, more than ten years after he first told me about it, I finally did. I was floored by it. Mieville may be a genius. His prose is complex and poetic, and his imagination is vast and daunting. And yet for as much as I admire Perdido Street Station, it’s not nearly as much fun to read as The Rook is. Wanna know why? Because, like many science fiction and fantasy writers, Mieville can get too serious and forget that human beings have senses of humor—even when it might not seem appropriate. The author of The Rook, in the same vein as Joss Whedon and Russell T. Davies, doesn’t forget this. Also like them, O’Malley has an affection for strong, interesting, funny women characters. His Myfanwy Thomas comes to us with no memory, but by novel’s end you may just find her unforgettable. At the very least, you’ll have a rip-snorting good time.
Now get off your arse and go read it.
The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley
486 pages. Published by Little, Brown. 2012.
You can find The Rook on Amazon, but try your local bookstore first. If you’re not sure why you should, please write me and I’ll do my best to explain it.