Friday, 4 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 1. "The Rook" by Daniel O'Malley

Page count: 512 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This book appeared on a lot of various book bloggers' Best of 2012 lists (including more than one Cannonballer's), and I totally see why. It's the first book in a long time that I was reluctant to put down and stop reading, even for short periods, and that I stayed awake until stupid o'clock in the morning to finish reading.

A young woman stands in a park in the rain, surrounded by fallen bodies of people wearing latex gloves. She's beaten and battered, with no memory of who she is. In her jacket pocket, she finds two numbered envelopes. "Dear you, the body you are wearing used to be mine." starts the first letter. The writer of the letters is Myfanwy Thomas, a woman with unusual powers, highly placed in a top secret supernatural government agency known as The Chequy. New Myfanwy is given the option to create a new identity for herself, take a large amount of money and disappear completely. She can also, should she choose to do so, take the written instructions that the mysterious letter writer gives her, and continue being Rook Thomas.

Myfanwy is one of two Rooks, outranked by only six people in the Chequy. The organisation has operated in Britain for centuries, working to keep the country and much of the rest of the world, safe from supernatural threats. In the letter, Myfanwy is warned that some other member of the Court (a Lord, a Lady, two Bishops, two Chevaliers and one other Rook) is behind the plot to steel her memory and kill her. New Myfanwy has to try to assume the many and complex duties of Thomas (as Myfanwy comes to think of her), and try to figure out who is conspiring against her, to prevent it from happening again.

As her job involves overseeing the workings of a highly complex government agency, her closest counterpart happens to be not one, but four distinct and different bodies (three men, one woman) governed by one mind, our heroine's task is a daunting one. Thanks to the wealth of written instructions, however, Myfanwy seems to manage to cover up her memory loss quite well, although several people around her seem to be surprised by the more assertive and outspoken role she's taking.

The book has a brilliant way of delivering exposition, as at the beginning of the story, Myfanwy is as blankly ignorant as the reader. Every single aspect of her life has to be explained, and is slowly revealed throughout the story whenever there is the most need for it. Through the many letters, and the comprehensive file old Myfanwy leaves for herself, we discover the history of the Chequy (and of their American equivalent, the Croatoan), their inner workings, get the biographies of all the court members and those people Myfanwy works with most closely.

Myfanwy discovers that while her closest colleagues can spread their consciousness and independently control four bodies, manipulate and reshape metal any way they want, invade people's dreams and control them and all sorts of awesome things, the old her mainly rose through the ranks based on the terrible potential of her "superpower" and her meticulous administrative abilities. While Rook Thomas could take control over other people and make them do whatever she wanted  or cause all sorts of damage with a mere touch (make them shoot or stab themselves, blind them, deafen them or make them lose all control of their bodily functions), she was apparently very reluctant to use these powers for the good of the Chequy. Old Myfanwy was, to all intents and purposes, just the perfect and never tiring civil servant, freeing the other members of the Court up to deal with the more exciting aspects of stopping supernatural threats.

New Myfanwy has no such scruples about her fascinating abilities, and also discovers that she necessarily need to be touching the person in question, just be in close proximity to them. Wisely, with someone in the Court plotting against her, she keeps this knowledge secret. As well as doing her best to cover up her amnesia and maintaining her every day duties, while trying to figure out which of the members of the Chequy Court had her memory erased and tried to have her killed, Myfanwy's new life is further complicated by the return of a centuries old Belgian menace that requires the Chequy and the Croatoan to join forces.

This book grabbed me from the very first page, and wouldn't really let go. While there is a lot of action, and actually a fair bit of gory and unpleasant bits, there are also quieter bits which are nonetheless fascinating because Daniel O'Malley's done such a great job not just with Myfanwy as a character, but with the entire supporting cast, from the multi-bodied Gestalt down to the lowly foot soldiers of the organisation (like Lil' Pawn Alan) and the world building in general. I loved the idea of the Chequy and the supernatural threats to the world in general, which is riffing on Torchwood, the X-men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X-Files and a whole bunch of other fantasy and sci-fi ideas, while still doing something entirely new and very fresh with it. A tremendously fun and suspenseful read, that keeps you entertained and interested all the way through, The Rook was a great way to start my reading year.

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