J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

The Rook: Chess code names ahoy!

Whew. It’s good to be back. Work lately has been extremely demanding, which has cut drastically into both my reading and writing time. But now that summer camps are over (helping run a music school in the summer is a boatload of work), it’s back to my regularly scheduled programming.

I finished another book yesterday. It’s called The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley.

The little tagline at the top of the cover caught my eye when I was at the bookstore. It sent my imagination racing. It said to me “What if James Bond was dealing with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other nasties instead of SPECTRE?” It was an exciting and fun idea in my head. I mean, seriously. That is EXACTLY the name of a Bond film with “Supernatural” tucked in the middle. And I love James Bond stuff.

Well, this book…. wasn’t exactly that. So what was it, exactly? A mixed bag, full of good ideas and interesting choices in terms of execution of those ideas. But more on that later.

The blurb goes like this:

Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies. With her memory gone, her only hope of survival is to trust the instructions left in her pocket by her former self. She quickly learns that she is a Rook, a high-level operative in a secret agency that protects the world from supernatural threats. But there is a mole inside the organization and this person wants her dead.

As Myfanwy battles to save herself, she encounters a person with four bodies, a woman who can enter her dreams, children transformed into deadly fighters, and an unimaginably vast conspiracy. Suspenseful and hilarious, THE ROOK is an outrageously inventive debut for readers who like their espionage with a dollop of purple slime.

Sounds interesting, right? I thought so too. But on to the review!

What I liked:

The beginning. There’s no denying it. The opening to this book is dynamite. You’re plunged right into Myfanwy’s (rhymes with Tiffany, cool name) world, where she’s surrounded by corpses in a park at night. And oh yeah, she has no idea who she is. It sets you on the ground running immediately, and makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a big, insane adventure. This is punctuated by the fact she comes across copious amounts of letters from her former self (you know, before she lost her memory), outlining everything she needs to know to survive in the world of the Chequy, which is the organization she works for that deals with supernatural threats in the UK. This opening is probably among the best I’ve ever read… I blazed through the first 100 pages.

The narrative. It was an extremely clever idea to bookend chapters with pre-amnesia Myfanwy writing to her future self. It is perfectly plausible within the story, and provides exposition in a non-obvious way. It’s kind of fun, since you realize Myfanwy herself desperately needs all the information she can get, whether it’s about crazy Belgian alchemist groups, or even just profiles on her fellow court members. Her former self was known for being prepared for ANYTHING, so it works well. Probably one of the most unique parts of this book.

Gestalt. As you might imagine, there are many, many supernatural tropes in this book. But Gestalt was my favorite character. Not because of personality, not because of anything “it” actually did. But just because of the sheer creativity of the character concept. Gestalt is a shared consciousness across four bodies – it controls all 4 simultaneously, and all 4 are badass operatives. I really like the concept, and it’s unfortunate that so little was done with it.

The humor. The description calls this book “hilarious”. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but the humor is classic British style – dry and sarcastic. I love British humor. It was quite enjoyable in most cases, even though sometimes it felt a little forced.

What I didn’t like:

The tone. Let me explain: after the amazing start this book has, it slows down, and Myfanwy goes into work, and meets her assistant, her boss, and all of her co-workers with little to no memory of any of them, or how she should act to avoid looking suspicious. If this sounds curiously like a sitcom plot to you, I’m right there with you. It’s full of awkward funny, and marginalizes the cool paranormal organization stuff in favor of her walking a tightrope in her professional life. She’ll constantly get reports of cool, crazy incidents happening elsewhere, and you’ll sit there thinking Gee, that’d be cool to read about. But no, you’re not going with the commando team to deal with the threat. You’re going to sit right there with Myfanwy, and listen to her respond to everything with lots of dry humor from the comfort of her desk. And on the one time she does respond to a call herself, she can’t stop making cracks about how uncomfortable her shoes are, or how awkward she feels going into a house with malevolent fungi, or anything but the actual peril at hand. PROTIP: When your main character refuses to take the stakes of a situation seriously, it’s awfully hard to convince your readers to take it seriously either.

It’s not a bad thing, per se, but it certainly is nothing like what the blurbs imply, and not even like what the opening in the actual book would have you think. It is extremely frustrating. It’s like the book refuses to take itself seriously. It feels sort of similar to some episodes of modern Doctor Who, in that regard. That’s definitely not a bad thing, but it’s nothing like what I was expecting.

I just kept saying “Stop joking around. I know I would if there was a traitor in my organization, and people were dying all over the place.

I realize this probably makes me sound like someone who doesn’t like the funny, but nothing could be further from the truth. I just like the funny when it’s used in the right contexts. If you don’t take your plot seriously, I won’t either.

The sub plots. Almost all of the subplots in this book are disappointing. We find out Myfanwy has a sister she’s never met, that suddenly tracked her down out of interest in finding her other family. There’s any number of interesting ways to take that: maybe her sister isn’t her sister at all, and is just a double agent trying to exploit a weakness. Maybe her sister will do something dumb, but then redeem herself by saving the day. Or maybe her sister will stay at Myfanwy’s house, go clubbing with her once, and then not do anything else interesting or productive for the rest of the book.

Guess which one of those the author chose. *sigh*

Or take the notion of the evil Belgian alchemists that are outlined as obvious villains at the start of the book. Myfanwy makes sure to tell us that they are a major threat, and are not to be taken lightly. But when they do show up, post amnesia Myfanwy refuses to take them seriously (of course, because again this book has trouble with that) and taunts them with cleverness like threatening to drown them in sewage. And when they turn out to be not so bad as we think? Well, that doesn’t matter either, because the one that actually was a bad guy was unceremoniously taken out by commandos. Off screen. Yes, I am serious.

The bottom line:

I really wanted to like this book. It started out with tremendous promise, and is chock full of great ideas. It practically bursts with creativity. But that doesn’t mean much when you refuse to take any of it seriously at any point of the novel past the first 100 pages, and have so much of the relevant action happen off screen, or just not lead anywhere at all.

But as it stands, it turned out to be unsatisfying. I can see why some would really love this book (Amazon readers clearly do, judging by the ratings), but this one just didn’t do it for me. Which is annoying. This author has great talent. If he writes a book that is as great as the opening to this one for the whole duration, I’d be a huge fan.

But as is…. no.





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This entry was posted on August 1, 2015 by in Books, Literacy, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , .
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