The first novel that I finished in 2017 is The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It was originally published in 2012, but I still see it on group reads lists and in general circulation among readers. I watched one of the “trailers” (not sure how I feel about books having these) and it neither intrigued me, nor discouraged me. This not a perfect novel, but these days, there are so few truly good books that it should not be surprising. It was, however, one of the better novels that I have read in months. This is not deeply intellectual literary fiction, but it is quite a bit of fun and entertainment.
The thing about this book that most struck me was that the author is male (raised in Australia, educated in the USA) and this is his first published novel. However he writes a very convincing and likeable female main character. I think this would be difficult to do – to write a main character of the opposite gender – and do it without it seeming patronizing or stilted. I would have assumed the author was female if I had not known otherwise prior to reading the book.
Myfanwy Thomas is the name of the main character and much has been made of her first name. It has been said that this name is Welsh and is pronounced similar to “Tiffany.” I’ll be honest, with names in novels, I have never actually read them. I read them once or twice and then the whole name just becomes a block item – pattern recognition. That shape is the main character.
So, a secret government organization called The Checquy exists. They deal with (all aspects) of the supernatural/unnatural all in the service of The Kingdom. They are run by The Court, which consists of their senior leadership members – who are ranked in accordance with the standard pieces of chess. Why? No real reason other than “it is cool” – because chess is cool. The main character, Myfanwy Thomas, is a Rook. Since I know you know your chess, you know that the Rook is the “lowest” ranked non-pawn piece. (Let’s not expand into the supposed values of the chess pieces.) In this story, she’s having a rather rough time of it.
Another item that really impressed me about the author’s efforts here, is how he manages info dumps. First of all, he created an exceedingly likeable main character. The Myfanwy character is convincing, intelligent, and has a completed personality. Also, she is definitely one of the wittiest characters I have read in a long time. And by “witty,” understand that I do not mean snarky or cutting. I mean actually witty. Part of developing this character so well was giving her a unique and powerful voice. I think this, too, is a challenge for many writers. Making sure that the character has her own voice and is recognizable and realistic makes it infinitely better when we have heaps of information that the main character is going to spew at us.
“I just received information that the Americans are coming.”
“All of them?” asked Myfanwy. (pg. 167)
The format is the second aspect that helps the author manage info dumps. He has his main character write “letters” that delineate the backstory and background information. Because she has such a strong voice, these letters come across a lot better than if they were droll, tedious letters being written from Locke to Leibniz (sorry, fellas). Now, the letters are printed in Italics – which did vex some readers – but I am from the generation where we read and write beautifully in cursive, so I did not mind that at all. But this formatting helps bridge the gap between past and current in the storyline and allows us to follow along with the main character in almost a book-within-a-book method. Very nice and not so easy to pull off in your first novel, I would think.
Ultimately, this is urban fantasy. It has supernatural/unnatural elements in it. However, it definitely takes place in the real world, more or less as we know it. The fantastical elements are treated as if normal to this world, but hidden from us – especially because of activities of The Checquy. However, this novel is not really about vampires and werewolves and their melodrama. It is, more or less, a mystery novel. In fact, this is such a mystery novel that the fact that there are supernatural goings on really does not matter as much as the mystery at hand that the main character is thrust into right at the start.
It would be enough to write a successful contemporary urban fantasy novel for one’s first published work. To also make that novel a very interesting and engaging mystery novel does deserve a chapeau. And so, in the midst of a plotline focused on the main character and her suddenly acquired career in The Checquy, we are also following clues in a mystery case. The mystery, by the way, is who/what is trying to kill Myfanwy Thomas? There are a lot of possible suspects, motives, and red herrings. The author does a superior job keeping the reader in the loop with the many options for suspects. I did not guess the guilty…. though… I never do….
In fact, right until the end I was in suspense as to who was a good guy and who was a bad guy. All of the characters, and there are a bunch, are distinct and interesting. I mean that, I do not mean that they are filler characters made out of cardboard. The author did a lot of work to make the supporting characters developed. Most of these characters would have successful spin-off series novels without any trouble.
Generally, the book is very enjoyable and has a lot of good things going for it. I do think it is a tad bit too lengthy, I would like to see this around 400 pages – excising about 80 pages. However, it is still a solid read and I would recommend it to everyone. Especially because this is a novel without ridiculous sex scenes, absurd romances, and blathering agendas. There are some scenes with some seriously well-written descriptive violence – but its, as they say, “fantasy violence.”
Finally, I think one of the things that most appealed to me about this book was the concept of tossing the main character into a world in which they are clueless and overwhelmed, but yet expected to perform successfully with aplomb. This was very engaging and gave the storyline a bit of dramatic tension not solely built on the mystery or the supernatural stuff.