The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

A body closes its eyes as one person, and opens them as a different one. In this case, the first person was Myfawny Alice Thomas, Rook of the Checquey, which is the supernatural secret service of Great Britain. Rook is her title, the most junior member of the ruling Court of the Checquey. She was quiet, shy, but the most able administrator the organization had ever seen, and in fact rose to her position based solely on the strength of this. Oh, and she could stop your heart with a fingertip, though she’d much rather not, if nobody minds.

The woman who opens them? Well, she could be anyone. All she knows is she’s got an epi-pen and two letters in her pockets, one addressed “Dear You,” and signed, “Myfawny Alice Thomas.” And so begins one of the most imaginative, heroic, relatable, and funny novels I have ever read.

The Rook is Daniel O’Malley’s first novel. He is actually Australian, not British, though a monarchy’s a monarchy, right? And he works in the civil service, within which nearly all this book takes place.

This book plays out the threads of what it would be like to assume someone else’s life quite realistically, as old Myfawny guides new Myfawny through her days with sheaves of letters and a big purple binder full of notes. But new Myfawny finds herself winging it a lot of the time, giving those who knew her predecessor a few shocks and surprises along the way. It is the most primal of character developments. Go from a blank slate to a complete badass. Well, not a total blank slate, Myfawny 2.0 knows she likes blueberry pancakes.

Myfawny 2.0 is a wonderful character; she’s very real, but very cool. And I don’t mean that in the sense that she’s whizbang awesome cool like “cool, dude,” but in the sense that she’s a cool customer. She takes all the things that happen to her in stride, responding to that which she has no clue about with aplomb. But she also reacts the way anyone would react, reaching out to make friends, being kind, being curious and playful about her new situation and powers. She is a normal woman in extraordinary circumstances.

And thats not to leave out Myfawny 1.0. She is also fascinating. She is a fully realized character that we get to know through her letters to her successor.  Her’s is the tortured life, the difficult life. She’s been through trauma and it has affected her. She’s a little broken, not so much that she isn’t also a badass in her own way (a paperwork badass) but with just a few cracks showing. And she has a bunny named Wolfgang.

O’Malley’s style is punchy, clever and quite humorous. My favorite line: “Her voice cut through the noise like a scythe through a poodle.” Now, it doesn’t get that goofy too often, just a few dollops of goofiness scattered throughout when it starts to get too serious. The attention to detail is delightful. For instance, he speaks very astutely about clothing ; the differences between the two Myfawny’s taste, what others are wearing, how it affects how they are perceived and what they are trying to say about themselves. One of the best written scenes describes a particular scandalous red dress. Additionally, he addresses Myfawny’s very realistic indignation at being shunted aside by men, and how she stands up to them. Overall, O’Malley addresses feminine issues and characters with a steady and accurate hand.

His ideas are unique, the enemies here are frightening and unusual. I won’t give away too much, but there is a massive cube of reconstituted flesh with tentacles that rivals the end of Akira for creepiness. There is one rather weak point, a WMD made of mold, but I think it was intended to make the enemies look a little bumbling and too proud of their own devices. And Myfawny’s power is itself unique and well thought out. She has her limits, but until she reaches them, she’s a force with which to be reckoned. And I haven’t even said a word about the secondary and tertiary characters, all with creative powers that they utilize in useful and deadly ways. And O’Malley doesn’t depend on their power to define them, they all have backstories and mannerisms and personalities. He does not go very far from Myfawny’s story, however, relying on the letters and 2.0’s observations to serve.

The plot is twisty turny goodness. I re-read the book to review it, and some of the points still surprised me. Things come out of left field, but the pieces are always there to be put together. And, rarest of rare achievements, especially in a first novel, all strings are neatly tied up.

According to interviews, O’Malley is working on a sequel, among other projects (including a YA novel set in the Ottoman Empire and a straight novel about assassins). I wish he wouldn’t. This book stands on it’s own, and I fear dear Myfawny will get old when the whole memory thing wears off. Perhaps I underestimate his prowess, or the strength of the characters. Perhaps the sequel will address the lack of scenes featuring anyone else but our girl, and we’ll get to see more details of the Checquey’s past.

In any ratings scale, I would give this book top marks.


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