Nafiza Recommends: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

If you want to decide whether or not you want to readThe Rook by Daniel O’Malley, see Nafiza’s post and the rather wonderful book trailer for the novel (the answer, btw, is yes you do). I’m going to focus instead on certain facets that stood out to me, like the way a book about amnesia, the business/governmental world, and the supernatural sneaks in a lot of things that tend to be overlooked.

“Dear You,

The body you are wearing used to be mine.”

So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies — all wearing latex gloves. With no memory of who she is or how she got there, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and escape those who want to destroy her.

She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-level operative in the Checquy, a secret government agency that protects the world against supernatural threats — from sentient fungus to stampeding ectoplasm — while keeping the populace in the dark. But now there is a mole on the inside, and this person wants Myfanwy dead.

Myfanwy, pronounced not in the traditional Welsh way but MIFF-un-ee (rhymes with Tiffany), is a terrible bluffer. For proof, see all of chapter three, in which she reluctantly begins impersonating herself and returns to work. She is laughably bad at being subtle; I felt sorry for her poor executive assistant, Ingrid Woodhouse, who mercifully did not call Myfanwy out on being blatantly not herself in front of the entire Checquy (pronounced SHECK-eh). The first scenes had me writhing with laughter and with second-hand embarrassment on Myfanwy’s behalf.

Myfanwy’s job, really, is to administrate. Her fellow Rook, Gestalt, runs the field operations; Rook Thomas, as she is referred to at the Checquy and as Myfanwy calls her former self, stay at her desk behind the scenes and manages all the preparations, communications, and paperwork that makes field operations successful. In short, she is a cross between an office administrator and an accountant. It was glorious to find on the written page acknowledgement of how wholly essential these overlooked (and in the instance of administrator, femininized and diminished) jobs are to the smooth running of any organization. Thomas clearly took pride in her ability to make things happen from backstage…

I am good in a crisis because I am very, very good at making preparations. (p. 62)

Even if her administrative brilliance was accompanied by shame and humiliation. Thomas’s revulsion to her own supernatural ability made her a disappointment to her teachers; as an adult she was patronized and ignored by her peers and even her inferiors. Personality makes a difference, the text argues: Thomas, with her extraordinary intelligence, ability to kill, and administrative capabilities, is considered insignificant on account of her meekness and physical timidity.

Myfanwy is having none of that. Having completely lost her memory, Myfanwy has also lost the (really rotten) life experiences that made Thomas the way she was. Myfanwy emerges as a much more assertive woman. She begins to take advantage, as Thomas did not, of her authority within the Checquy… even if she doesn’t know what she’s doing or who is trying to kill her.

This isn’t to diminish Thomas. I loved her letters to Myfanwy; they are funny, revelatory, sharp. Her note on her ability to manage crises, despite feeling like she might vomit from tension, rings true; one of my high school teachers told the class that the secret to winging it is to prepare extensively beforehand. And Thomas is a consummate planner.

Which is part of why reading her letters to Myfanwy is so fascinating. They function both as a journal in which Thomas records her research and feelings, and as a letter to a self who knows nothing of Thomas’s everything. The letters, within the narrative, function along similar lines to both provide background information that Myfanwy and the reader need to know, and as a narrative that parallels Myfanwy’s ongoing story. Because Myfanwy cannot read all the letters at once (there is a suitcase full of them, written over the course of almost a year), they are interspersed throughout the story at strategic points. The reader becomes increasingly aware, through the letters, of how long-suffering and overlooked Thomas is. We learn to read between the lines, to see Thomas’s ability, her fears, her humour, her meekness, her rising desperation. We see her suffer increasingly under the almost unbearable burden of her imminent betrayal and memory loss. We see this already traumatized woman come close to falling apart; we see, at last, a character who never stood up for herself come to love herself, work to shelter and protect the future self whom she will never meet. Thomas’s letters are more than necessary information; they contain a character arc for a woman we never meet directly, but whom we, like Myfanwy, find matters to us — a woman who comes to matter to herself.

In the end, no matter what choice you make, I hope you can be happy. I don’t know what kind of person you are or what you’l do, but I’ve written dozens of letters to you, and I find myself caring desperately. You don’t exist yet, but you’re my sister (identical!). You’re my daughter. You’re my family. Maybe you’ll be Myfanwy Thomas, or maybe you’ll pick yourself a new name and never think of me. But no matter what life you choose, know that I think of you and pray that everything works out for you and that you have the very best life you can.

Love, always,

Me

(p. 483-484)

One of the things that differentiates Myfanwy from Thomas, aside from the ability to assert herself, is that Myfanwy develops friendships with other women. Thomas doesn’t seem to have had any friends, only working relationship. Myfanwy, on the other hand, is unable to stick to the accepted formality with other women, most notably Ingrid, Myfanwy’s executive assistant, and the visiting American Bishop Shantay Petoskey. Notably, Ingrid is Myfanwy’s immediate subordinate while Shantay outranks Myfanwy, although does not have authority over her. Both friendships blossom quickly. And so does Myfanwy’s relationship with her long-lost sister, Bronwyn. It is such a treat to read about adult women meeting other women and becoming friends! And *SPOILER* it is completely fitting that Ingrid unintentionally saves Myfanwy’s life by insisting that Thomas wear a coat.

Things that needed improvement: Myfanwy is at a few points unwontedly petty about other women. This felt like it came out of nowhere, and it mars her otherwise feminist character – Myfanwy explicitly states that the Checquy needs more women in command (it desperately does; only 2 of the 8 top positions are held by women), so why this nastiness? I wanted more lead characters to be POC. Currently only Shantay is a significant POC (she is black and Chippewa); while many background characters are assigned nationalities, they are only background characters. The leadership is entirely white, and while this could be a deliberate and telling detail on the part of the author (*SPOILER* the main villains are white, male, and wealthy, after all), Myfanwy does not assert that the Checquy needs more POC. WHich was kind of a disappointment. And the unforgettable Shantay is only present for half the story. The whole clubbing night was just an Incident waiting to happen (which it did); on the other hand, it didn’t unfold the way I expected, which was pleasant. There were repeated minor tip-offs that the author was male: phrases that use “man” as if it were interchangable with “human,” for instance; “bitch” used as an insult; a few comments about breast size; and Myfanwy’s embarrassment when a woman starts breastfeeding. The international situation confused me, as only Americans are mentioned as having an equivalent to the Checquy, which how??? And Checquy members are mentioned as being in Hong Kong, India, and other places that are most definitely not British. The portrayal of American First Nations and of the relations between whites and former slaves with supernatural powers felt flat, un-nuanced, and very naively white. Oh, and certain passages had me waiting for Myfanwy and either Ingrid or Shantay to fall in love.

Things that were pretty awesome: as mentioned above, Thomas’ letters, Myfanwy asserting herself at work, and female friendship. A snarky comment on Britain and imperialism, and a most excellent point on classism and resentment which I won’t go into for fear of spoilers but which is, albeit minus the supernatural abilities thing, is definitely commentary on situations IRL. I was delighted to see that Thomas emphasizes that Checquy agents’s success is not due to innate talent but to intensive training. Also! The story directly links bureaucracy (Thomas and Myfanwy’s role) with the nastier elements of this sort of organization, such as torture. The people involved in the paperwork side of things are responsible, even if they aren’t the ones with (metaphorical) thumbtacks and screws.

Things was left wondering about: The whole self-fulfilling prophecy thing. It is never touched on in the story, which was just as well because that sort of thing gives me a headache anyway. A bigger question is about Thomas’s power. She can control other people’s bodies, and as she associates this with violence and pain, she hates using her power and does not explore its abilities beyond the bare minimum. (Much to Myfanwy’s later advantage.) But if she can sense and control people’s bodies, why did the Checquy not think to put her to use as a healer? Imagine having a woman who can tell cancer cells to die, just like that. Or tell a patient to stop hemorrhaging. Or direct tissues to push out embedded shrapnel, or undo allergies, or flush out pneumonia.

Anyway. Overall, The Rook is an entertaining, funny, fast-paced read (I read it in one go, which was not what I’d planned to do) with characters whom you will care about and a plot that does not go as you might expect. Thank you for the rec, Nafiza! I’ve already put a hold on the sequel.

To borrow from Brain Pickings, pair The Rook with Diana Wynne Jones’s Hexwood, Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, and Libba Bray’s The Diviners.

“You’re a very glass-half-empty person, aren’t you?” observed Myfanwy.

“That’s experience talking,” said Shantay. “In these situations, the glass is always half empty.”

“Always?”

“Always,” confirmed the Bishop. “Right until it fills up with some sort of spectral blood that grows into a demonic entity.”

“It’s probably just as well that I went into administration.” (p. 235)

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