An amnesiac Londoner with supernatural powers is charged with sniffing out a mole in Daniel O’Malley’s ‘The Rook’

June 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 12, 2019

The Rook, a 2012 novel by an American-educated Australian, launched what to date has been a two-part series called the Chequy Files. Daniel O’Malley’s first book belongs to a genre I think of as urban fantasy fiction, which the 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines in part as “the subgenre of stories set in an alternate version of our modern world where humans (often with special Talents) and supernatural beings — most typically Vampires, Werewolves, assorted other Shapeshifters and very humanlike Elves or Fairies — interact via adventure, melodrama, intrigue and Sex.”

Now I enjoyed the Harry Potter series about as much as anyone else my age. In my early teens, I was something of a fantasy aficionado, dabbling in The Lord of the Rings and successors such as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern volumes, Terry Brooks’s Shannara series and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. But my interest in the genre died off sometime by the middle or end of the 1990s. Other than J.K. Rowlings’s mega-best-selling Potter series, I hadn’t read a new work of fantasy in something like two decades — until last month.

The Rook has a very clever premise and is mostly well-written, but it emphatically did not rekindle my interest in fantasy. The book begins with a woman standing in the rain in a London park with no knowledge of who she is or why she’s surrounded by bodies of people wearing latex gloves. This mostly blank slate is inhabiting the body of Myfanwy Thomas, an high-ranking official in “the Court” of a quasigovernmental secret British institution called the Checquy Group. (Her given name rhymes with Tiffany; the organization’s sounds like Sheck-Eh.)

Thomas and her colleagues, who number in the hundreds and have mainly been raised and trained from infancy, possess supernatural powers; along with a large support staff of non-powered Retainers, all extremely intelligent and capable, they are sworn to protect England from supernatural threats.

Unfortunately, after centuries of successful defense, something is rotten in the Checquy Group’s highest circles. Thomas has been targeted by a mole just as the organization’s bitterest and most capable enemy is rallying its forces for some kind of invasion.

The original Thomas was able to ascertain these facts thanks in part to extremely industrious administrative oversight in her role as one of the group’s pair of Rooks. After receiving a series of premonitions about her impending amnesia, apparently at the hands of an unknown enemy, the diligent Thomas wrote herself a veritable sheaf of exposition and given her blank-minded successor some tools for either resuming her old life or assuming a new identity.

‘The Rook’ by Daniel O’Malley.

So far, so good — especially when the disoriented Thomas finds herself suddenly attacked for no apparent reason. Sadly, O’Malley’s comic flourishes didn’t always connect with my sense of humor, and a bit too much of the book involves Thomas holding rather quotidian meetings. You may get a sense of this from the following passage detailing the new Thomas’s “first” encounter with her fellow Rook, a quartet of slender blond twins (two of them identical) collectively known as Gestalt because they share a single telepathic mind:

“We only just got back from that operation in Essex,” Cool Twin was saying. “You’re looking, ah, a little different, Myfanwy.” 

“It’s the black eyes,” suggested the other twin. 

“No,” disagreed his brother. “It’s something else.” Myfanwy tried to look enigmatic and probably failed. She watched them shift in the chairs. 

“So, what happened to your eyes?” asked Tidy Twin. 

“Oh, uh, someone tried to mug me,” she said. 

“But you’re all right?” he said. 

“I’m fine,” said Myfanwy. “A bit achy, but fine.” 

“Interesting…” mused Cool Twin. 

Crap, this isn’t in keeping with the traditional meek and mild Myfanwy Thomas, Myfanwy realized. She thought about trying to appear more traumatized but instead opted fo misdirection. 

“So, where are your siblings hanging out nowadays?” she asked. Thomas’s notes hadn’t included photos, and she was keen to see the brother her predecessor had had a crush on. 

“Eliza is leading a team in Aberdeen, chasing down that antler cult,” one of them said dismissively. “Robert is back in our office.” 

“Well, I hope they’re keeping well,” she said pleasantly. This Gestalt is good, she thought. It’s like they really are three brothers and a sister. Myfanwy realized that one of the twins had been speaking and she hadn’t been paying attention. “I’m sorry, what did you just say?” 

“Alex was just explaining that we know they’re fine,” explained Tidy Twin. 

“Ah, of course, of course,” Myfanwy agree sharply, suddenly irritated with his patronizing tone. “They’re fine. You’re fine. We’re all fine.” 

The one part of the book that I found risible came about halfway through, when O’Malley inserts a roughly 10-page-long letter from original Thomas chronicling the history of the Croatoan, the Checquy Group’s American counterpart. Otherwise, things range from the pleasantly mundane — see the preceding passage — to outright exciting.

The Rook is amusing, but it isn’t exactly my cup of tea, and I wouldn’t read O’Malley’s second book in the series, Stiletto, unless it was strongly recommended to me by someone whose judgment I valued highly.

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