Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Reading Notes: The Rook

This review is the 6th book (of a list of 11) for me in reading the sci and fantasy novel finalists for this year's Aurealis Awards. I am almost finished number 7 - Jo Anderton's Suited - and will be reviewing that one next Monday. I'm still hopeful that I'll get at least one more done before the prize announcement on 18 May, but we shall see!

It must be a good year for awesome debuts in Australian speculative fiction. After Nina D'Aleo's The Last City, I thought I'd read unquestionably the best debut of the year, but then The Rook comes along and makes me revise (or at least nuance) that judgement. Because this book is also terrific - completely different from The Last City, but wonderful and enjoyable and so well written. I don't envy the Aurealis judges in the sci fi category one bit.

I described The Rook on Twitter as "sort of a sci fi-conspiracy theory-thriller-secret society-paranormal-comedic mash up", and that still captures the essence of the book to me. It's based around the central character(s), Myfanwy / Thomas, who has paranormal powers and works as a chief administrator (a Rook) in a secret paranormal security organisation, the Checquy.  The book deftly weaves lots of action, an intricate and well executed conspiracy plot, genuinely witty dialogue and a little light musing on the nature of identity.

It's not a short book - almost 500 pages - but it never feels too long or too dragged out. Partly this is a function of the pacing, which is pitch perfect, and partly it's O'Malley's unusual and entirely successful choice to use letters as the main exposition device in the book. The letters, written by Thomas in the time before the book opens to her future self, provide all the background and context the readers needs in an interesting and plot-relevant way.

Thomas has written the letters to herself - or rather to Myfanwy, the blank-slate person who wakes up in her body with absolutely no memory of who she is or what has happened - because she knows she is going to be attacked and have her personality / memories / self sucked away. She also knows that her body will survive, so she writes the letters to help the new person in her skin to navigate the bizarre and dangerous underworld she'll now be living in. As a technique for providing backstory without having to use character-puppets, this works incredibly well. It also deepens the pathos of Thomas's fate, as we get to meet her (through her letters) as well as Myfanwy, the new personality.

There is a good serving ickiness in the book (what is it about paranormal books that necessitates the glowing goo factor? I don't know) but it's never overwhelming to the plot or the character development, not just of Myfanwy but of the array of supporting characters. The ensemble cast is extremely well executed too - O'Malley does a great job of sketching them in without belabouring the point. My favourites were the savage but beautiful vampire, Alrich; the admirably creepy Gestalt, the other Rook, who is one person with four bodies; Shantay, a representative of the Checquy's American equivalent, the Croatoan, who comes to London, becomes Myfanwy's BFF and wants to shop in between supernatural suppressions; and Ingrid, Myfanwy's faithful secretary and aide, who helps her navigate her post memory loss world.

I also deeply enjoyed the fact that this book is really funny. Not a laugh a minute, but full of dry zingers, pratfalls and situational comedy that serves to both lighten and support the plot. So much science fiction is deeply serious stuff! and must be taken VERY SERIOUSLY! It's nice to read a book that defies that and gets it just right.

So overall, this is a great read. I don't think it's better than The Last City - too different to compare, really - but I do think it's as good. I would recommend it without reservation.


  1. Kathy, thanks for adding this to this month's "library". Cheers

  2. Quite interesting...I have never heard of this book. THANKS for sharing.

    Cute blog too.

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved June Edition. I am in the list as #31.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry