Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Rook - reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

Chores remained undone and ringing phones unanswered while I had my nose buried in Australian author Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel The Rook (HarperCollins, $36.99). Billed as a supernatural thriller, it is one of the most absorbing novels I’ve read in ages - wildly improbable, quite hilarious and brilliantly told.

It opens with a woman waking in a rainy London park surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves. She has no idea who she is but in her pocket finds two letters. “Dear You,” reads the first one. “The body you are wearing used to be mine…”
She discovers her name is Myfanwy Thomas and that someone she should have been able to trust is trying to kill her. The letters direct her to a safety deposit box where she finds a suitcase filled with yet more letters piecing together Myfanwy’s extraordinary life. It turns out she is a Rook, a high level operative in a secret government agency called the Checquy charged with safeguarding the world from supernatural threats while keeping its populace entirely in the dark. But Myfanwy isn’t some sort of Men In Black-style action hero - that would be too obvious which is something The Rook rarely is – instead she’s really hot at admin. Armed only with the information the letters have supplied about Myfanwy’s career and weird superpowers, she tries to discover who wants her dead.
O’Malley’s powers of invention are impressive and the Checquy is peopled by fabulous creatures. Aside from the mandatory handsome vampire (yes apparently every fantasy novel has to have one), there is a woman who can walk through dreams and a man who has four bodies that can all be off doing different things at once.
A précis of the plot can’t convey how funny this book is. Whether Myfanwy is battling supernatural fungus or simply trying to work out how she ought to behave, the story has a spoofy quality that somehow doesn’t distract from the suspense. I suspect fantasy purists might not approve of the comedic element and will possibly even find it silly but it worked for me as did the device of the letters – which is continued throughout the book – that allows O’Malley to info-dump, filling in the complexities of Myfanwy’s past and details of the Checquy without cluttering the narrative.  This is clever stuff as well as being a good read.
The Rook is an impressive debut from a man whose day job has him writing press releases for government investigations of plane crashes. It has the page-turning powers of a Dan Brown but with infinitely better prose. I suspect the Checquy holds the potential for many more stories and very much hope O’Malley gets round to writing them.

Nicky Pellegrino,(right), a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 25 March, 2012

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