Monday, 18 March 2013

The Rook Is A Good Book.

Or why you should read The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

I've had many bad experiences with book stores and not being able to find a particular novel (often despite it appearing as in stock on the webs) and then trekking across the city in the rain to another and another store to find it. It's frustrating. The Rook, however, was a book I picked up purely because of a well curated bookstore.

I found The Rook at a particularly large book store while traveling alone for work. I went to a bookstore because I had time to kill (which is a great function of bookstores) and to find a newly published novel I wanted for the plane ride home. Despite being well after the publication date, the store did not have the new novel (Bookstores! Man!). The bookstore did, however, have wonderfully appointed end cap displays with a feature novel surrounded by new and classic books with similar themes, motifs, or sub genres. Like a steampunk, zombie, and trippy Sci-fi display. The Rook was perched atop the superhero subgenre display (one that also featured Soon I Will Be Invincible) and that was why I picked it up.

Anyway, the book. 

The Rook tells the story of a woman who gains consciousness in a park with no memory of her past, surrounded by bodies wearing latex gloves, and in a possession of a letter that tells her that her body used to belong to someone else named Myfanwy Thomas. (Myfanwy pronounced with a silent "W" so it's like Tiffany but with an "M".) The protagonist's body, this Myfanwy Thomas, was a Rook: a high ranking member of a centuries old secret society of Superhumans called the Cheque, which covertly polices paranormal activities in the United Kingdom. The protagonist's body, it is alo revealed, has the superhuman ability to control and manipulate others with a touch. Our amnesiac woman decides to take the identity of Myfanwy Thomas for herself and impersonate the former Rook in an effort to discover who exactly stole her body's memories and to avenge the former Myfanwy Thomas. With instructions and letters left by the former Rook, this new Myfanwy must hide her amnesia from her superpowered colleagues, negotiate her management position, stop an invasion by a dire supernaturel threat, and find her betrayer. 

Cliche amnesia device aside, that's a pretty great premise, right?

And for the most part The Rook delivers on it: overall I enjoyed reading this book. The novel makes good use of its amnesiac device to drive the story forward and develop the fairly imaginative world of the Cheque. Moreover, The Rook also manages to be a solidly good mystery novel: twists manage to be startling and satisfying and interesting enough to have kept me turning pages. The Rook is also quite a lot of fun: it has an inherent silliness, bounciness, and humour about itself that makes the book a pleasantly charming read. 

That said, The Rook is not without its faults. Its goofiness occasionally comes off as trite and distracting instead of charming and funny. At times the novel's fluffy qualities actually work against the narrative: many of the attempts at tension or horror fall a little short because the tone of the novel is far too forgiving to feel like danger will really come with significant consequences. I'd also say the The Rook is a little guilty of trying to be a serious Superhero action mystery while also playing at parody. To a certain extent, the novel may have functioned better if it had focused more clearly on being one or the other.

At the end of the day I think I'd still recommend the novel to... actually, I think there may be a really direct way to test if you, reading this, will like this book. Take the name Myfanwy, pronounced Tiffany with an "M". It's pretty much a perfect expression of the novel. It's a striking, strange, and slightly fey name with the promise of something secret that is pronounced in a somewhat mundane and silly way. Reading that name, to me at least, was this constant and conscious collision between how mysterious Myfanwy looked and how silly and fun "Miffany" sounds. Which was really my experience with The Rook. So if you read the name Myfanwy/"Miffany" and like how it feels and the tension between its two forms, I think you'll probably enjoy The Rook. If you think Myfanwy/"Miffany" looks ridiculous and stupid... then I'd try another novel.

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