Once again, I was perusing the fantasy section when, out the corner of my eye, I spotted a weird little book. On the cover I saw no swarthy ax wielding barbarians or calligraphic titles but a simple red, black, and white color scheme. The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley, written in bold, white Arial font, was the title of this oddly colored book, and at first I thought it was misplaced.
Still, curiosity warranted I give the book a once over, if only to find the right genre. After leafing through the first few pages I realized I was the mistaken one. Thus I purchased this wonderful book with the last of my odd job money. It’s a decision I do not regret, for this book became the perpetrator of many great late-night readings that followed.
On Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service
The Rook takes place in present-day London: land of double-decker buses, pubs, and secret agencies. The Chequy (pronounced check-kay) is the secret agency tasked with dealing with Europe’s supernatural problems. Hailing all the way back to Medieval times, the Chequy has stayed a prominent player in keeping world order through the handling of many capable individuals.
One such person is our protagonist: Myfawny Thomas. She’s a bright, unassuming woman, who would rather work behind the scenes than fight on the front lines. Unfortunately, when our story begins, she wakes up in an abandoned park surrounded by dead people wearing latex gloves, and no memory of who she is. Armed only with a series of letters she wrote prior to the amnesia, Myfawny must now find out who is responsible for this betrayal and discover what plans they have for the rest of the Chequy.
The pieces of the Chequy board
One of the more well-developed aspects of O’Malley’s writing is his ability to make interesting characters. Myfawny’s job means she has to manage a great deal of people, thus characters are always coming in and out of narrative focus. Though you may need a pen and paper to keep them all in check, O’Malley makes them unique and personable enough that if you don’t remember which character they are, a short dialogue will be enough to jog your memory. Under lesser hands the characters would be a mess, but O’Malley is more than capable of juggling such a large cast.
Perhaps the best example lies in his handling of his protagonist. Amnesia tends to be a cliché story element, but with Myfawny it works spectacularly well. From the beginning, we’re presented with a clean slate, one with remnants of her past personality (such as a fondness for the name Penelope) but not so much that she’s completely helpless. Eventually she develops a personality of her own, one not marred by childhood trauma or self-conceived notions. Her past self is developed through her own color-coded folders and well-placed notes. Effectively, O’Malley makes two characters from one, while giving the tired trope a fresh, realistic perspective.
What to expect
There are many draws to this story as it blends fantasy, slice of life, mystery, and the supernatural all into one neat package. Like Myfawny, the reader needs to stay alert regarding any new information, for you and she are experiencing this life for the first time. O’Malley isn’t shy about sharing his well-developed world with his readers, but for some this might prove to be a bit much.
The pacing is often uneven—not because of writing, but rather because of what is expected of the reader. Some parts will read quickly, while others will make you want to re-read due to their ambiguity. This book will require you to stay alert, and can be surprisingly complex when you least expect it.
Why should you read this book?
When describing fantasy books, “convincing” is not a word that usually comes to mind. Words like “enticing,” “enthralling,” heck, even “terrible” come to mind long before “convincing” even rears its head. Yet, it seems to be the only descriptor that will do this story justice. The characters have both realistic personalities as well as powers with a practical application. The Chequy is so well defined you would think the department actually exists in London.
O’Malley’s The Rook provides a fresh take on many tired tropes while investing its readers in the best way possible. It’s an ambitious first novel that is urban fantasy as its finest. If The Rook is any indicator of O’Malley’s skill as a writer, then this series has the potential to be one of the best.