The very first page of Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, The Rook, grabbed me like few other books ever have. The main character, Myfanwy Thomas, finds herself in the rain surrounded by bodies. She doesn’t know how she got there, or even who she is. The only clue she has is a letter in her pocket from herself, before she lost her memories. The letter gives her specific instructions on where she needs to do next, and says that she can open the next letter when she is safe. All this in about a page and a half. It’s the sort of opening that dares you to not sit down and burn through the whole novel in one sitting. The Rook manages to deliver on its premise, creating a world that sucks you in and makes you want to read more books in the same setting.
It’s easy to describe The Rook in terms of other more well-known works. It’s a little like the TV show Fringe, but it’s not really science-fiction. It’s a bit like James Bond, if all of MI6 had superpowers. It turns out that Myfanwy (it rhymes with “Tiffany,” apparently) is a high-ranking agent in the Chequy, a top-secret government agency serving Her Majesty and protecting the UK from paranormal threats. You don’t get through the ranks of the Chequy without having some unusual abilities, and Myfanwy discovers that she is working with some remarkable people. There’s Gubbins, who can contort his body into just about any position he needs. There’s Gestalt, an agent who has a single mind manifested in four different bodies. There’s also a vampire in there somewhere. And the best part is one of them tried to killed Myfanwy, but ended up erasing her memory instead.
It’s a lot to unpack, and O’Malley gets around the info-dump by continuing Myfanwy’s correspondence with her formal self. It’s about as elegant a solution as I can imagine, and he uses it well into the last quarter of the book. He lets us into the world of the Chequy at just the right pace, showing us the different players, the history of the organization, and the threats it faces. I would have read an entire book about this history of the Chequy, and there are times, especially early on, when it feels like that’s almost what we’re getting. But then the book moves into its main story, and we are treated to some truly terrific set-pieces.
They’re terrific for a few reasons. First of all, O’Malley isn’t afraid to get just a little frightening. Things like a malevolent fungus that absorbs those who attack it, a man with a mouth full of razor blades, and powers and confrontations that get deadly and gory with little warning. It’s never what I’d call out-and-out scary, but it’s discomforting and written in a highly visual prose. The flipside of this is a wonderful stiff-upper-lip British attitude and a dry wit that adds levity to the fear without ever destroying the atmosphere. In this regard, it’s just a little like the best episodes of Doctor Who, able to blend horror, comedy, and action effectively.
The Rook is also fortunate to have a strong protagonist in Myfanwy. She’s a strong female character who essentially functions in two distinct personalities: the one who is currently involved in the Chequy and the one who lost her memory and communicates through letters. It’s a cool trick that it’s able to essentially make two different characters in one person, and to make them so distinct. The Rook also passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, in that it has a strong female lead who doesn’t define herself through her pursuit of a man. But neither is she some kind of warrior princess. Present-day Myfanwy isn’t quite as well-rounded as I think the past one is, but since she’s literally discovering her personality as she goes I don’t think that’s a problem.
The Rook stumbles most with its actual plot. The search for the traitor within the Chequy isn’t as compelling as it should be. O’Malley has a bad habit of trying to get you to suspect everyone simply by telling you not to trust them. This is a bigger problem in the early going, before the tumblers start falling into place and the resolution brings it all home. And anyway, it’s not a story where the plot is really the main draw. That would be the world of the Chequy, where everything unexplained is surrounded by secret agents who are just as unexplainable. The history and the depth that we learn about with Myfanwy is funny, exciting, and just a little frightening. It’s a blast to read, and for once I don’t find myself exhausted when I think of an endless line of sequels. This is one series I’ll be returning to.