Fantasy Book Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The ability to grab the reader from the very start is one that many authors struggle over, the power of the first sentence to entice the reader into a new world, and hopefully never let go. In Daniel O’Malley’s first novel, The Rook, he achieves that and more. “Dear You,” the story begins, “the body you are wearing used to be mine.” The novel opens with a woman in the rain surrounded by a ring of bodies, reading a note from herself. O’Malley has gathered together an array of fairly common ideas and tropes: the amnesiac hero (or in this case, heroine), the secret society protecting the world from monsters, the hunt for a traitor within their midst. Individually each is enough to hang a novel on, but O’Malley blends them together with an almost giddy excitement. This is a supernatural thriller; its cover originally provided the tagline “On Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service” which tells you not only the kinds of supernatural espionage hijinks that will ensue, but that the author’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. This is a knowing book, filled with loving touches and a deliciously dry wit.

Our amnesiac heroine, Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany, as we are helpfully informed on the very first page) is not a typical fantasy heroine. She has a desk job; for one thing, at least she did before she lost her memory. In between magical battles, page-turning action sequences, plots, counterplots, and ancient enemies returning, the reader is invited to glimpse the amusingly bureaucratic side of saving the world. O’Malley intersperses excerpts from the original Myfanwy’s letters to herself throughout the story, often causing wonderful juxtapositions. As a result, Myfanwy (both versions) forms the backbone of the novel. It sinks or swims depending on her. Luckily, O’Malley has developed two distinct yet similar well-rounded characters to serve as his heroine and entrance into the strange and wonderful world of the Checquy, the secret organization that battles supernatural forces in Britain.

The plot itself is a fun blend of espionage and mystery, filled with more than enough weird science, weird magic, and twisted characters to satisfy any genre lover. There’s the elderly Victorian lady who can enter people’s dreams, and then there’s Gestalt, a single entity in four bodies. The Rook is a first novel, and occasionally the growing pains show a little. The late introduction of a character very important to Myfanwy felt a little mistimed and clunky, and the ending was a little rushed and confused for me. But on the whole this was an impressive, taunt, playful and altogether fun addition to the urban fantasy shelf. The Rook has already been relabeled the first of The Checquy Files series, and I, for one cannot wait for Book 2.

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