Quick. Think of possible superpowers (if they existed, that is). How many minutes and how many powers pass before you hit the ones like telepathy, metal manipulation and so on? Not many, I’m guessing.
This is why when (or if) you feel a sense of déjà vu while reading The Rook, Daniel O’Malley’s début novel that’s about supernatural forces, you must remind yourself that just because something has a character who can read minds doesn’t mean that said something is a rip-off of X-Men/ Heroes/ any other pop culture entity dealing with mutant-like abilities. There are only so many supernatural abilities out there. Moreover, the real test lies in experiencing what plot, universe and themes have been built around these powers. On that note, The Rook does not disappoint.
The book opens with a letter from Myfanwy (rhymes with “Tiffany”) Thomas to…Myfanwy Thomas. And that’s the hook. Someone wakes up in the body of a woman with absolutely no knowledge of how she got there or who the body belongs to. Via the letter she comes to know – as do we – that Myfanwy knew her memories were going to be erased in the near future. She tells the new inhabitant of her body that she works for a secret organization called the Chequy, which tackles all supernatural threats in Britain. Her position in the Chequy is that of a Rook (hence the title) and she has a pretty super superpower of her own. She was betrayed by someone in the organization and that led to her current state. We follow the new inhabitant as she familiarizes herself with Myfanwy’s body, takes her place in the Chequy while simultaneously trying to find out who betrayed her and what mischief is afoot.
Yes, the plot isn’t the most original little thing in literature. It’s a standard-issue political conspiracy/whodunit thriller you may have come across before (repeatedly even). But clichés are clichés because – if executed well, of course – they work. And The Rook works. That cold open is an excellent way to engross the reader right from the first page and, thankfully, things don’t dip after. While the presence of umpteen questions about the past and the search for their answers draws you in during the opening sections, O’Malley simultaneously builds up an entertaining narrative in the present. The bizarreness of the universe the novel is set in, the eclectic cast of characters and the never-just-routine daily life of Myfanwy Thomas make for easy page-turning material.
The novel is 454 pages long and, unfortunately, at some places it does feel like it. O’Malley gets so carried away with his protagonist at times that you end up having read some pages which could have been easily cut from the book without making much difference. He also over-relies on the letters Myfanwy writes, using them to tackle exposition in a manner that’s too apparent, clumsy and stretches credibility. Moreover, he has this tendency to use red herrings which are so painfully obvious that it’s surprising so many of them made it into the final draft. For example, you’ll read a paragraph on Myfanwy exulting after vanquishing a threat and waxing eloquently about her plans for celebration/relaxation…only to come to know that the threat hasn’t been vanquished entirely yet. This happens more than a dozen times in the novel (when it’s amusing maybe just the first time).
But O’Malley has quite a few strengths as a writer. In Myfanwy he clearly sketches out a protagonist who’s smart, brave, funny and as easy to root for as she is to like. If Myfanwy was the only good character in The Rook‘s universe, you could dismiss O’Malley’s skills as a fluke. But there are various other characters who are just as fun to read about, although a few background players blur into each other. He has a knack for writing banter that’s believable and entertaining. Most of all, he’s funny. At various stages in The Rook a dry observation, a witty exchange or a scathing one-liner made me grin. His sense of humor even extends to the acknowledgements (I chuckled at one line in there).
I opened The Rook expecting a fast and fun popcorn adventure. That’s what I got, with a little more pizzazz thrown in. If you are looking for quick and slick entertainment, you could do much, much worse than this. O’Malley’s stated he has sequels in mind. Color me interested.
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Photo Credit: Little, Brown & Company