Review: The Rook – Daniel O’Malley

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The Rook
By Daniel O’Malley
From Harper Collins Publishers

The Rook is a debut novel from Australian writer Daniel O’Malley, and a remarkably assured and enjoyable debut it is. The back cover calls it a ‘supernatural detective thriller’, and mentions an ‘adept use of humour’, and for once the cover notes are actually pretty damned close to the truth.

O’Malley’s book is probably closest in kin to Charles Stross “Laundry” stories — excellent tales of a British bureaucracy tasked with defending the mundane world against Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time, space and reason. O’Malley’s “Checquy” is at once a little more mundane, and a great deal more peculiar than Stross’ “Laundry”, but overall the book certainly stands up to comparison with Stross’ work, and that’s a very high compliment.

The book opens with an amnesiac main character, which is standard enough fare for this kind of thing. However, O’Malley works a fine twist on an old trope by presenting us with letters from the amnesiac to herself. It transpires that as a high-level operative (a “Rook”) in the chess-themed Checquy, Myfanwy Thomas actually had advance warning of her impending — err — brain disaster. Accordingly, as the character is a master bureaucrat and organiser, she went about leaving a cornucopia of notes and directions for herself.

In O’Malley’s hands, this intriguing gimmick serves many purposes. As Thomas begins the book knowing nothing of her past, or of the wildly peculiar organisation in which she serves, the regular dollops of backstory, setting and exposition that come through her own notes to herself are welcome to the reader as well. As Thomas herself grows in confidence and understanding, so do we, the readers. And of course, as she gradually slides down the rabbit-hole into a conspiracy of horror that goes back several centuries, we go right along with her for the ride.

O’Malley’s sense of humour is definitely worth noting. By making Thomas an amnesiac, a blank-slate ‘everywoman’, he permits her to observe the little absurdities that must pepper the operation of an ultra-secret, ultra-powerful supernatural organisation in a modern world of mobile phones, terrorists, and fashionistas. He has a nice eye for detail, and the ability to offer the kind of perspective which allows us to laugh at horror, and see the funny side of bureaucratic intransigence.

The story itself develops well, between Myfanwy Thomas’ excursions into the past. There are traitors, duly signposted but definitely not obvious. There is a fine conspiracy, dreadful enemies, tense confrontations, action, violence, and a memory-eating mutant with a really nasty tongue. Myfanwy Thomas’ journey from confused victim to powerful, confident mover-and-shaker is as compelling as it is entertaining. If I were to complain at all, I would say that towards the end, some of the interjections from Thomas’ past interfered a little more than I liked with the flow of the story. I wanted the cliffhangers resolved, dammit, not prolonged!

Not much of a complaint, really — because there’s little enough to complain about. The book is fun, imaginative, fast-moving, and very entertaining. Buy the thing so that O’Malley can get on with bringing out the sequel, and I can read it sooner rather than later.

***

PS: My wife liked the book too. Daniel — you really do need to write the sequel. Natalie doesn’t take kindly to being abandoned partway into what is obviously going to be a very entertaining series of books.

***

And finally, in the interests of full disclosure: I met Dan at the last NatCon in Canberra. We were sort of forcibly introduced by the redoubtable Peter “Horn” Ball, but the meeting was a real pleasure for me, regardless. I taught Dan to add a little Blue Curacao to his gin — and I quickly learned to enjoy his sense of humour. So much so, in fact, that I feel no compunction whatsoever in reposting this delightful photograph of Dan and his dog:

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And so, in conclusion: you’d better make good on your threats to visit Tasmania, Dan, or I’m going to start posting the other photos. Nobody really wants to see that, do they?

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2 comments

  1. The protagonist with no memory also reminded me of Corwin from Zelazny’s Amber series but in setting you are indeed spot on with Stross’s Laundry Files.

    It was the epistolary aspects of the novel I found my self seeking, providing a more confident/knowledgeable self to provide a mirror to the newly minted character.

    “Dear You,

    ”The body you are wearing used to be mine. The scar on the inner left thigh is there because I fell out of a tree and impaled my leg at the age of nine. The filling in the far left tooth at the top is a result of my avoiding the dentist for four years. But you probably care little about this body’s past. After all, I’m writing this letter for you to read in the future. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is because I knew it would be necessary.

    “The complicated answer could take a little more time.”

    and I too am looking forward to more.

  2. Hey Dan you look like John Spillane.

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