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The Rook
Daniel O'Malley
Back Bay Books, 482 pages

The Rook
Daniel O'Malley
Daniel O'Malley graduated from Michigan State University and earned a Master's Degree in medieval history from Ohio State University. He then returned to his childhood home, Australia. He now works for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, writing press releases for government investigations of plane crashes and runaway boats.

Daniel O'Malley Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil

'In any other country, a massive, bloody war would have ensued. Horrors would have stalked the land, unholy amalgamations of flesh would have fought on the fields, and the nights would have held new, unspeakable terrors.

Fortunately, this is Belgium we're talking about.'

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The Rook is the story of Myfanwy Thomas, an important administrative cog working in Her Majesties Supernatural Secret Service. The only traditional supernatural critter that plays any significant part in this tale is a single vampire, but there are plenty of others who are distinctly abnormal. Most common are those imbued with major or minor super-powers and able to pass as regular humans, and those who may appear to be human, until genetic and/or surgical adjustments activate to radically alter their bodies. As the story begins, Myfanwy Thomas is not herself, in fact she is someone else entirely; a new inhabitant of a body that awakens badly beaten, and with several dead people lying broken nearby. The person who opens her eyes doesn't even remember who she was, let alone who she is soon prompted to become. Prompted mostly by a series of notes left in anticipation of what has occurred by the original -- now departed -- Thomas. The quest at first is just to survive, but soon becomes a daily struggle to assume the original Thomas's role completely. Yes, there was an alternative option to walk away, but obviously had that occurred this book would have been the equivalent of Tom Cruise banging on about Scientology, short and boring. In a move that will surprise no one, author Daniel O'Malley's preferred choice is to set his creation off on the adventure of someone else's lifetime.

The Rook is prefaced by no less than four pages of quoted reviews, proclaiming the work as the best thing since sliced bread. They may be right, but here at SF Site we like to make up our own minds. Myfanwy Thomas, it turns out, was among the executive officers of an organisation called the Checquy, who are a semi-autonomous branch of the British Secret Service, charged with securing the UK against supernatural threat. A mission that they conduct at all times in secrecy, believing that keeping the masses ignorant and safe is always preferable to full disclosure. Soon enough the new Rook, with the assistance of the vast quantity of notes left by the previous inhabitant of the body, is on the trail of a traitor within the Checquy. The same individual whose attempt to have her killed resulted in a mind wipe. Also on the agenda is the resurgence of an old enemy known as The Grafters. They are a Belgian organisation with unspeakable and utterly ruthless expertise in the fields of surgical enhancement and genetic manipulation. The Checquy and Grafters have only fought once before, when the Grafters attempted to invade the Isle of Wight. On that occasion, at great cost, the Checquy were victorious, the Grafters were thought to be destroyed and their hideous technology scattered to the four winds. However, all is not as it seemed, and now the most dangerous of enemies is back, one of them minus his skin!

The Rook is one of those books pregnant with promise that, for me, offered so much more than it delivered. That is not to say it is a bad book, indeed it contains several memorable characters, fun scenes that are often loaded with dramatic tension, and bags of potential in terms of where its plot could take the reader. But, much of this ends up being marred by lazy imagination and loss of focus. The Checquy are ranked and named in accordance with chess pieces, but why I wondered had the author chosen something as hackneyed and dull as this when he had the option to either invent something new, or use a more obscure and interesting root. Similarly, there were several points at which the central character, supposedly a shrewd and intellectual person (in either incarnation) behaves in ways that are simply stupid, often for no reason other than to introduce a clumsy plot device. Then there is the issue of the various powers and technologies, none of which are backed up by even halfway convincing pseudo-science. Like a poor children's novel, we are expected simply to believe without question and enjoy the ride. This approach works for some readers, of course, but not for me. I found it immensely frustrating that enjoyable characters, and intriguing situations that I would love to have had explained in more depth were introduced, made use of and tossed aside, often in favour of light comedy dialogue or italicised pages of expose where the author broke the cardinal rule of show don't tell. There were glimpses here of something that could be greater than what was on offer, but by the end I felt as if the best was yet to come.

Copyright © 2013 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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