Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Rook (The Checquy Files, #1)The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is books like The Rook that remind me why I love to read. I listen to several book podcasts and read a number of book blogs. I inhale any best of the year and recommended reading lists I can find. I go to the library every weekend. So while nowhere close to all-knowing about the book industry, I do pay attention to books. And yet I had never heard of this book until I stumbled across it on a “recommended reads” shelf at my library (thanks Seth at Ames Public Library!). There are so many creative talented authors, writing creative books that even if you make an effort to keep up with the buzz on books, there is always the opportunity to just stumble upon a gem. The world of books is like Aladdin’s cave of wonders know..the booby traps.

The Rook attracted me immediately with the cover which is dramatic and quirky and very British looking (there’s an octopus and a rabbit!) and with the blurb which begins:

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.

British Secret Service with a supernatural twist? Amnesiac protagonist with a huge mystery to unravel? Sign me up!

Much to my delight, The Rook delivers on these early superficial portents of awesome. For a debut novel, I thought everything was very deftly done. The plot and mystery zooms along and sucks you in while also divulging all the interesting exposition and details about The Checquy, the secret agency referred to in the blurb. This is accomplished by sections of the book focusing on “new” Myfanwy Thomas and her adjustments to the life of which she has been dropped in the middle, interspersed with detailed letters and background left by the “old” Myfanwy Thomas explaining about the organization and the warnings she had been given about her imminent betrayal and personality wipe. The two types of narrative twined together pretty naturally and rarely got in each other’s way. This is the second book I’ve read this year that makes use of an amnesiac character as a device to spill out lots of description about a complicated world without it seeming awkward (the other is Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny). For me, this device obviously works remarkably well as I liked it in Nine Princes as well.

The reader sees everything through the eyes of the “new” Myfanwy Thomas and we get plenty of opportunity to get to know her well. The reader remains relatively removed from most of the secondary characters but Myfanwy is such a fantastic character I didn’t mind. Also through the letters we get to know the “old” Myfanwy quite well which leads to sympathy and lends a sense of poignancy and weight to resolving the mystery of her erasure. Despite this and a few other more serious moments, the overall tone of the book is light and fun and very, very funny. The humor is snarky and sarcastic and sometimes made me laugh out loud.

To sum up: A fun, funny, action/adventure, thriller, mystery, with supernatural elements, a fantastic protagonist AND it’s the first in the series. It has well drawn characters and a complex plot but never takes itself too seriously. I wavered between 4 or 5 stars but settled on 4 as I did have a few nitpicks with it and a little more depth would have kicked it up a notch. But overall, yay for random library finds!

P.S. Edited to add that one little clever thing that I loved in the book was that the American Branch of the Checquy is called Croatoan.  Having grown up spending many summers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina which involved many trips to see the Lost Colony play, I immediately laughed in appreciation at this.  For those who don't know, a colony of early settlers disappeared from the North Carolina coast with the only evidence of why they disappeared being the word Croatoan carved into a tree in the middle of the settlement.  Mystery solved!

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