Recommendation: Excellent Christmas holiday (any holiday really) reading
Read with: A willingness to go with the madness
Where to read: I don’t care, it’s great, just do it
In brief: As if to test my suggestion, a friend of mine read this over Christmas and I am delighted (and smug) to report that it was a success. If you have at any stage enjoyed James Bond, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter or Dr Who and want something more adult, give this a go.
The Rook is one of those books I pick up for a reread when I can’t think of anything I want to read at the gym or while travelling. It is, quite simply, a delight every single time I pick it up.
Without wishing to give too much away, the story centres around Myfanwy Thomas, an amnesiac with a freaky superpower (which she isn’t very good at using) and a position as a high ranking bureaucrat (which she is very good at doing) in a supernatural version of MI5/MI6 called the Checquy. The use of amnesia as a plot device could have come across as cliched but it doesn’t here, partly because it allows for excellent world building and because Myfanwy’s voice is so engaging. Present-Myfanwy has a fairly linear storyline but past-Myfanwy adds a more episodic feel, breaking up the main story with colourful anecdotes and entertaining commentary.
Speaking of superpowers, managing “magic” is a difficult problem for all fantasy/sci-fi authors and O’Malley deals with it by the simple expedient of not trying to give a “why” and making it so individualised that limitations are meaningless. It’s a good tactic with good precedent – for all the Pureblood/Muggleborn questions in Harry Potter, Rowling doesn’t really explain where magic comes from, what it is or why some wizards are stronger than others. By contrast, the Star Wars prequels made the Force more absurd (and less magical) than it needed to be by trying to get into the “science” of midichlorians. Giving everyone different X-Men style powers/mutations also avoids the need to come up with ways to limit the power of your characters (which you have to do otherwise you end up with the Superman problem – one character being so absurdly over-powered it becomes hard to find plausible villains). You can also dance around the tedious and inescapable scene where one older/smarter character explains the rules to the hapless beginner/the reader. This always slows things down, no matter if you’ve chosen a simple and widely used “energy in, energy out” model or the five principal exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration (and don’t forget to smash the supply of Time Turners). My point is, the system works and you don’t have to think about it too deeply.
Speaking of which… the author is a public servant and the half send up of/half love letter to bureaucracy is deeply entertaining. There are moments which, strangely, remind me of Yes Minister.
As an added bonus, it’s very well written and has a good handle on where to push the absurdism/fantasy elements and where to pull back. This is a reflection on my own evolution as a reader but I have found it increasingly difficult to buy into the fantastical over the years. I probably would have enjoyed them if I had got into them as a kid but picking them up as an adult, I have found everything from the Song of Ice and Fire to Goodkind and Sanderson borderline unreadable (and this is coming from someone who read almost exclusively fantasy/adventure through childhood). To be fair, this is a bit of an inapposite comparison. Despite the fantastical elements, which come through particularly strongly in the more episodic sections, the main plot bears more resemblance to a Kingsman or James Bond movie than a fantasy novel and it is this balance which makes it so very entertaining.
PS. There’s also a sequel, Stiletto, but I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the original – Myfanwy’s voice is a central part of why I loved the first book and I felt its loss once the perspective shifted. The replacement character is fun but I missed Myfanwy too much to really invest in her.
PPS. the TV series bears no resemblance whatsoever to the book – you might enjoy it but the two have nothing but names and rough premise in common.