Friday, August 2, 2013

Alas, No Checkmate

The Rook
by Daniel O'Malley
Published by Little, Brown and Company
3 Out of 5 Stars

To open your eyes in the middle of a downpour, beaten and bruised, surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves and realizing you have no idea who you are, how this happened, or whose body this is has to be a tad disconcerting. This is exactly the situation facing the new consciousness inhabiting the body of Myfanwy Thomas at the beginning of The Rook

Fortunately, the former occupant of Myfanwy's body knew her memories would be wiped clean and thoroughly prepared for this event. In the pocket of her coat, the new Myfanwy finds a letter offering advice from her predecessor: how to obtain money, where to go, of whom she should be wary. It also offers her a choice: she can take on a new identity and live her own life, or she can resume the life that had belonged to Myfanwy Thomas. The complication is that the life of Myfanwy Thomas comes with unbelievable power, but also with at least one powerful (and unknown) enemy. Myfanwy learns that, prior to the betrayal that led to her subsequent amnesia, she was a Rook, a high ranking agent of the Chequy, a secret organization of superpowered individuals charged with protecting the British Isles from supernatural threats. She also learns that she her particular gift is the ability to control the actions of others. The new Myfanwy must uncover a traitor in their midst if she's to learn who took her memory and why.

Holy shit, has it been a long time since I picked up a book with such a kick ass beginning! However, the problem with such a beginning is that the narrative must continue to rise and kick substantially more ass from that point forward. Alas, The Rookdoes not. The momentum and intrigue created by the beginning started to taper off within 100 pages as I began to realize that, despite an awesome premise, the best part was already over. 

The first issue that I had with the novel is that it is difficult to pin down the tone. The beginning, despite a few welcome flashes of humor, seems serious and I settled in for what I presumed would be an intelligent supernatural thriller. Once Myfanwy returns to the Chequy, however, the humor becomes more prevalent and broad. At times I felt as though I were reading something more akin to Monty Python or Christopher Moore, which would have been fine if this tone had been consistent throughout. The supernatural threats seem better suited to the sort of thing one would find in young adult literature: inventive, sure, but their almost cartoonish qualities lessen the suspense as one realizes there's no real menace here for either our heroine or Britain itself. The abrupt shift in tone from potential thriller to "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" cleverness lost my interest early on.

Another factor that decreased my enjoyment of the novel is the manner in which Myfanwy's amnesia is handled. To have a superpowered agent for a secret organization bumbling around with no memory would normally offer for some delightful possibilities. However, because Myfanwy knew ahead of time that she would lose her identity, she had time to prepare. And, boy, did she prepare. She wrote an entire series of letters to her new self and even put together a handy-dandy purple binder outlining every intricacy of the Chequy. Using these letters and the purple binder, the new Myfanwy is seldom caught off-guard. In fact, she becomes so good at pretending to be the old Myfanwy that one can forget for entire chapters that she has amnesia. The letters are presented throughout the book in standalone chapters that serve as info-dumps or side stories that have nothing to do with the present day narrative. I began to dread the sight of italics because I knew it was another letter that would only slow down the momentum of the novel. The entire amnesia conceit simply serves as a framework for these letters; the novel may have been better off without both.

Despite these flaws, the novel has some admitted flashes of brilliance and humor. Plus, Myfanwy is a very likable heroine. It suffers from "too much," though, as it tries to be all things at once. Just a read through the reviews that describe it as a Jason Bourne-meets-Ghostbusters-meets X-Men-meets Harry Potter-meets The Vampire Chronicles can pretty well sum up how much is going on within the narrative. Unfortunately, it doesn't juggle the mix well enough to pull it off. 

1 comment:

  1. Bourne Supremacy, Paycheck, Total Recall... "I'm in the middle of an important mission, and now I have amnesia and have to piece the clues together!"

    It seemed original enough the first go around or two, but going forward, any story that's keen on using this device is going to have to step up its game and deliver, or else lose an audience that's seen this too many times before.