The Rook, Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, opens with a classic thriller/mystery setup: Our protagonist awakens in a rain-soaked park with no memory of her identity. Even better—at least from the reader’s perspective—she’s surrounded by a ring of bodies, each wearing latex gloves. Fortunately, there are two notes in her pocket from her body’s former owner, Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas.
The first letter provides the briefest of introduction and ends with, “Go find a safe place, and then open the second letter.” This second letter presents her with a choice in the form of keys to two separate lockboxes. Choose one, and she can leave, completely abandoning her body’s former life for low-profile comfort and wealth. Choose the other, and she will assume the identity of the new body, trying to find out exactly who is responsible for her current condition. It’s a Matrix-worthy blue pill/red pill moment for the Body Formerly Known as Myfanwy Thomas. Since The Rook wouldn’t be much of a read otherwise, it’s not giving anything away to say she chooses lockbox #2.
The Rook may read like a comic book, but it reads like a good comic book.
As a plot device, the amnesiac main character approach is as dramatic as it is practical. Thomas’ quandary thrusts big questions to the fore on page one: Who am I? How did I get here? Who or what did this to me? It also places a protagonist who would otherwise have many of the answers on the same page as the reader, ostensibly allowing both to discover information simultaneously. (Answers to the previous questions, respectively: A highly ranked operative of a super-secret organization called the Checquy; Not sure; and Wouldn’t you like to know?)
As a Rook, a powered member of the ruling body of the Checquy, Thomas must resume her day-to-day duties without revealing that she’s not the person she once was—a daunting task when one is the bureaucratic pulse of an organization more Microsoft than Ghostbusters. As she does so, she must also learn all she can about her colleagues/suspects, defuse a host of supernatural crises that fall under the the category of “all in an insane day’s work” and deal with the possible return of the Checquy’s most dangerous foes.
To younger readers, or anyone not versed in comic books or fantasy lore, The Rook may seem as “richly inventive” as its promotional copy claims, but that’s not really the case. Instead, it’s better described as richly derivative. As a super-secret organization that employs super-powered individuals in defense of its homeland, the Checquy is just a slightly (and I mean slightly) less Lovecraftian British version of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense featured in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series. And there are plenty of team-based comic book series, past and present, that contain versions of the same. That said, making the distinction between “inventive” and “derivative” isn’t meant as a criticism, so much as a check to promotional hyperbole.
It requires real skill to weave together threads from various sources in a manner that is both coherent and enjoyable, especially when dealing with imaginative territory that has been virtually strip-mined by writers in the last few decades. With The Rook, O’Malley shows he is up to the task. The Rook may read like a comic book, but it reads like a good comic book, which is more than enough reason to keep an eye out for the next entry in the series.