May 05, 2012

BOOKS: The Rook, Daniel O'Malley (2012)

We open on a woman waking in a London park. She's surrounded by dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves, and she can't remember who she is or how she got there. Fortunately, she finds in her coat pocket a letter from her pre-amnesia self, which answers some of her questions. She is (the letter explains) Myfanwy Thomas, and she is a Rook, a high-ranking official in the Chequy, the secret spy organization tasked with protecting the British Empire from supernatural threats. And someone in the Chequy is trying to kill her.

From that premise, O'Malley spins a delightful comic thriller that reads like Douglas Adams' version of a James Bond novel (with just a touch of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure).

To avoid the potential confusion of a story involving two versions of the same person, O'Malley quickly establishes the convention that "Thomas" is the pre-amnesia operative and "Myfanwy" is our post-amnesia protagonist. Thomas, having been pre-warned by several psychics that she would be having her memory wiped, has left a series of letters and dossiers to give Myfanwy the information she will need to find the traitor.

And there are lots of colorful suspects to choose from, as you'd expect in an organization dominated by those with assorted strange powers. Might the culprit be Lady Farrier, an aristocrat who visits Myfanwy's dreams for night-time conferences? Her fellow Rook, Gestalt, a person whose mind is shared by four bodies? What about the disconcertingly agile Chevalier Gubbins?

The horrors Myfanwy and the Chequy face along the way manage to be genuinely scary while being just off-center enough to be funny -- the dreaded purple fungus, the malevolent flesh cube, the legendary psychic duck. Myfanwy's struggle to keep anyone from realizing that she's lost her memory also provides both suspense and giggles. Both narrators -- we alternate between Myfanwy's adventures and excerpts from Thomas's letters, which provide Myfanwy (and us) with necessary background -- are smart, tough action heroes, and it's fun to watch the subtle ways in which they aren't quite the same person.

I loved this book, and am happy that O'Malley has created a world which provides ample opportunities for further books, should he choose to write them. (Please?)

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