One Thing I Love Today: ‘The Rook’ is smart contemporary spy fantasy, and wildly ambitious

02.23.12 6 years ago 8 Comments

Hachette Book Group

Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel covers some familiar ground, but the reason I’m picking it as today’s OTILT is because it manages to wring something new from that familiar ground, and the result is an exciting fantasy thriller that mixes the modern espionage genre with the sort of magical world posited by the “Harry Potter” books.  It’s an intriguing collision of genre, and it works far better than I would have guessed just from reading the synopsis.

From the very beginning, the book takes a fresh perspective to tell the story, with Myfanwy Thomas “waking up” inside her body, completely unaware of who she is or how she’s gotten into the situation where she finds herself, surrounded by dead bodies in a park in London.  It’s not quite a “Bourne Identity” situation, since the Myfanwy that wakes up is not the same person who was attacked, and she has to figure out how she ended up in this body.  Thankfully, the old Myfanwy (pronounced “Miffany,” according to the narrator) knew that something cataclysmic was coming, and so she wrote herself a series of notes so her new inhabitant could pretend to be her and solve the mystery of how this identity exchange took place.

What she learns is that she is a Rook, and she works for an organization that handles any and all supernatural invasions or disturbances in England.  There are two Rooks in the organization, and a handful of other positions, and as many agendas in play as there are other employees.  The other Rook is a four-bodied identity named Gestalt, for example, and Myfanwy finds herself hard-pressed to maintain the illusion that she is this person who she never met.

The book is exciting, but more than that, it’s engrossing.  The details of the world that O’Malley creates are dense and interesting, and even without the mystery that Myfanwy is trying to solve, it would be involving.  Eventually, though, all of the threads that O’Malley introduces manage to come together, and the strength of this story is how carefully constructed it all ends up being.  I’ve read other books that try to create this type of world, and some of them are even entertaining, but few of them build a credible alternate government and a secret world that hides just at the edge of our perception, mixing a Lovecraftian horror with some Cronenberg body phobia and a strange, disturbing view of what magic might be used for in the wrongest of wrong hands.

O’Malley’s not just good with plot, though.  He is smart enough as a writer to digress and enjoy the details of the world he’s building, and he also seems to genuinely like Myfanwy, both the original version that’s been erased and this new bolder version that has taken over the body.  The contrast between the two of them adds real tension to the story, and by the time the book wraps up, O’Malley has told a complete story, but he’s also set the stage for what I hope will be an ongoing series.

“The Rook” is in stores now, and if you’re into spy novels, fantasy, or smartly-structured thrillers, this combination of things might convince you to join me in eagerly awaiting whatever it is that Myfanwy and O’Malley get up to next.

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