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The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

April 23, 2012

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

The Guys Lit Wire annual book fair is going on right now! Please support the Ballou Senior High School Library by purchasing a book or two (or more) on their behalf.

A woman finds herself in a park, her body aching, with no memory of who she is or what she was doing. She survived some kind of attack–the ring of motionless bodies surrounding her is an obvious clue–and finds a letter in her jacket pocket which begins

Dear You,

The body you are wearing used to be mine. The scar on the inner left thigh is there because I fell out of a tree and impaled my leg at the age of nine. The filling in the far left tooth on the top is a result of my avoiding the dentist for four years. But you probably care little about this body’s past. After all, I’m writing this letter for you to read in the future. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is because I knew it would be necessary.

Killer opening, right? And, for the most part, what follows lives up to the promising start. Which is saying something, since the book is nearly 500 pages long.

The letter writer, Myfanwy Thomas, warns the woman reading the letter that she is in terrible danger. The original Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) considerately gives her the choice of starting a new life, with a new identity, or continuing to live Myfanwy’s life to find out what happened her. New Myfanwy is no idiot. She’ll take the new life, thank you very much. Why would she want the old Myfanwy’s life, when strange people wearing latex gloves want to harm her? Only, before she can follow Myfanwy’s instructions, she is attacked. She has no idea how the people after Myfanwy have found her so quickly, but it changes her mind about which route to take. She will remain Myfanwy Thomas. And in a few days, she will go to work as if nothing happened to her and try to figure out which of her colleagues betrayed her.

If she can find the time to investigate, that is. Myfanwy is a Rook of the Checquy Group, which exists to protect England from supernatural dangers. Okay, Myfanwy’s an administrator, a paper pusher, but she’s very good at her job and she knows it. Well, the new Myfanwy knows that the old Myfanwy was good at her job, but trying to hide the fact that she remembers nothing about her old life while reviewing the budget for the removal of plague-infected bodies, observing the interrogation of a man apprehended by the Checquy, and dealing with a sentient fungus, among other things, is not easy.

The reader learns about the Checquy and original Myfanwy’s life along with the new Myfanwy, through letters and the contents of a giant purple binder the original Myfanwy wrote before her memories were taken from her. These sections are informative without feeling infodump-y. Plus, they’re filled with mentions of past supernatural threats (or assets, in some instances) Myfanwy had to deal with that, many of which were refreshingly imaginative and frequently hilarious.

This, and the distinct voices and personalities of the two Myfanwys, make Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook a clever and entertaining and very fun read. Yeah, some of the chess-related aspect of the Checquy’s structure felt a bit underdeveloped (why, exactly, organize it around chess?), and, once the plot really gets going, some Myfanwy’s letter intrude on the book’s otherwise brisk pace. But I was never once tempted to put the book down or skim a section or two, so considering how engrossing and enjoyable I found the book, these are minor complaints about a smart, sly supernatural thriller.

Book source: public library.

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