‘The Rook’ by Daniel O’Malley

October 1, 2015 at 3:17 am 5 comments

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley was the very first book I checked out of my new public library after moving at the beginning of September.

(And, for those of you following along at home, I truly hope this move was the last in the string of roughly 12 moves I’ve chronicled over the last 16 months. At least for a while. I’m actually unpacking all my books, which means this new home is at least approaching something like stability.)

O’Malley’s inaugural novel was released three years ago, but it came to my attention only recently via Book Riot’s latest attempt to “help fill the Harry Potter void” in our lives. These lists are probably the most common sort of list when it comes to the bookish internet (heck, we here at Literary Transgressions have often wondered what to do post-Harry Potter), but I can’t stop myself from reading them every time a new one appears. Will there finally be something on this new list that actually fills the Harry Potter-shaped hole in my reading life? I wonder. Even though there rarely (um, never?) is, the optimist in me always excitedly whispers, yes, maybe this time!

I don’t want to hold you all in suspense, so: no, not this time. Book Riot’s list included the usual suspects and then some books that captured some aspect of Harry Potter (boarding school or magic or an orphan or England) or were straight-up High Fantasy. None sounded appealing.

Then, at the very end of the list, there was a little trio of recommended books clustered together: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Night Circus, and The Rook. Now, the first two are two of my all-time favorite books. Ever. But the third? I’d never even heard of it. I was halfway out the door and heading to the library almost before I read anything about it. You group an author together with Susanna Clarke and Erin Morgenstern and, Harry Potter comparisons aside, you have my attention. And, in this case, I couldn’t be gladder of the recommendation.

As it happens, The Rook is pretty much nothing like Harry Potter. Nor is it particularly like Clarke’s and Morgenstern’s books. It’s more like a combination of All the President’s Men plus The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters plus Jason Bourne and Jasper Fforde (and/or perhaps one of Neil Gaiman’s short stories) with a little dash of Rowling’s Ministry of Magic thrown in to taste. And it’s completely excellent.

The Rook takes place in an alternate England where a secret government agency called the Checquy monitors supernatural developments at home and abroad. They clean up unfortunate infestations of talking mice, they rescue houses overwhelmed by sentient mold, and they prevent the public from panicking every time someone with the power to devour people whole goes on a rampage.

Insert into this our amnesiac heroine, Myfanwy Thomas, who is a fairly important officer at the Checquy, but also just woke up in the rain in a park surrounded by dead bodies and no memory of who she is or how she got there. Fortunately, her past self knew this was coming and left her an extensive series of letters to try and help her figure out what is happening and why. Because, of course, something is rotten inside the Checquy and it’s up to Myfanwy to finish her pre-amnesia self’s work and find the culprit before Britain is destroyed.

As you might expect from such a premise, it’s a tremendously entertaining book that alternates between imaginative flourishes and action sequences. It’s a much more modern novel than the stories it has been compared to and feels more like a supernatural Tom Clancy book than anything strictly magical or fantastical. The Rook dances around contemporary questions of espionage, homeland security, and trust with deftness and subtly, merely suggesting parallels with our actual government’s responses to strange events and terrorist attacks, even if the actual government (probably?) doesn’t have a supernatural detection department.

The Rook also metes out frequent moments of levity at the expense of government bureaucracy, helped along by author O’Malley’s day job working in the Australian government. His story is purely fantastical, but the characters’ “standard operating procedures” (and frustrations with them) are surely real. (And it helps that O’Malley is skilled in melding the supernatural with the bureaucratic. In one minor incident, Myfanwy acquires a pet rabbit after the special task force assigned to find a legendary animal capable of seeing the future wrongfully nabs the rabbit. Once they realize the rabbit isn’t prophetic, after some regrettable meetings and paperwork, the bunny goes home with Myfanwy and the task force returns to the field to find the real prophesying beast.)

So, while in no way would I compare The Rook with Harry Potter (or Jonathan Strange or The Night Circus), I would highly recommend it. It’s a great read that will keep you up nights either reading it until your eyes give out or lying awake thinking about it. Definitely check this one out.


Stray Observations
– A powerful, complicated female protagonist starring in a book that breezes past the Bechdel test while being written by a white male author?! Props all around.

– I kind of wish we could have a prequel about pre-amnesia Myfanwy. She is vibrant and delightful in her letters to her post-amnesia self, but is generally disregarded by her colleagues for her quietness and perceived “delicate” nature. I feel like I harp on about introverts in literature a lot, but O’Malley deserves extra lauds for his ability to show off both his pre-amnesia heroine’s introversion and her incredible talents at once through her letters. It’s the perfect way for an introvert to shine and, given her backstory (given partially in the letters), I wouldn’t mind seeing more of her.

– Final praise: there is no love subplot! It’s amazing. Myfanwy is a single, accomplished/successful young person with a strong cohort of women around her to support, console, and celebrate with her and not once is the idea suggested that she might be unfulfilled without a man in her life. As post-amnesia Myfanwy puts it, “A family. A job. A rabbit. It’s a pretty good life I lucked into, really.” The only hint of romance is a hinted-at yearning for someone to share her life with by pre-amnesia Myfanwy. It all feels true and feminist and amazing.


Entry filed under: Fantasy, Sci-fi. Tags: , , , , .

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