The Rook: Super-powered chess

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Rook by Daniel O’MalleyThe Rook by Daniel O’Malley

As Daniel O’Malley’s 2012 supernatural thriller The Rook (book one of THE CHECQUY FILES) begins, Myfanwy Thomas comes to herself with complete amnesia. She’s standing in a London park at night. Surrounding her is a ring of motionless bodies. They are all wearing latex gloves.

Myfanwy (“rhymes with Tiffany”) finds two letters in her jacket pocket from her former self:

Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine… I’m writing this letter for you to read in the future.

Myfanwy’s former self was aware that in some way her brain was going to be magically wiped of all memories, and did her best to smooth the way for future memory-less Myfanwy by writing a number of letters to herself.

All you need to know immediately is that someone I should be able to trust has decided that I need to be removed. I don’t know exactly who. I don’t know why. It may be for something I haven’t even done yet.

The second letter presents her with a choice: go into hiding for the rest of her life, using the fortune in a bank account specified in the letter, or jump back into her prior life and try to find out why she was betrayed.

New Myfanwy fully intends to grab the money and take off, but another attempted assassination convinces her that the only feasible option is to stay and fight. Having selected Option #2, she (and we) embark on reading a long series of letters from her former self, which explain Myfanwy’s past life as a high-ranking member of the Checquy, an organization of people with superpowers who help Great Britain and the world with various types of supernatural threats. It’s sort of like the X-men, except with a lot more British bureaucracy. Myfanwy needs to figure out who in the Checquy betrayed her and why, while trying to hide from everyone the fact that she no longer remembers anyone or anything.

As an info-dumping device, the letters are a bit transparent, but it’s all interesting enough that I never felt like complaining… except for one or two times when these flashback letters interrupted a particularly suspenseful scene. First get Myfanwy out of mortal danger, THEN give us another letter!

In an interesting conceit, the Checquy organization is based upon chess pieces: there’s a Lord and a Lady (the king and queen of the organization), two Bishops, two Rooks, etc. Only those people who have some kind of supernatural power can be in the top ranks of the Checquy. All others are Pawns — which leads to some understandable resentments and tensions in the ranks. Also, it quickly becomes apparent that former Myfanwy, for certain reasons in her past, was an extremely sensitive and timid person and, despite her stellar organizational skills, was not much respected within the Checquy. New Myfanwy, not burdened by those painful memories, soon starts to spread her wings and exercise her clout within the organization.

There are multiple types of superpowers on display in The Rook, but they’re not your run-of-the-mill superpowers. We have, for example, Gestalt, who is a single mind that inhabits four very good-looking and frequently homicidal bodies. Others can exude poisonous clouds of ink, sprout quills, or develop an impenetrable steel coating.

The Rook is written in a breezy, easy-to-read style, with a lot of wry humor in the writing and dialogue. There are several laugh-out-loud moments:

It was a dress designed to draw attention. “You look like Cinderella,” said Val in awe.

“Yeah, if she’d been into bondage and had Christian Dior as a godmother.”

Myfanwy is an easy protagonist to root for as, despite the handicap of her memory loss, she gamely takes on both her coworkers in the Checquy as well as the enemies they’re battling. After the initial set-up there’s a lot of action in the plot… except when it’s slowed down by the ubiquitous letters from Myfanwy’s former self. The mystery of Myfanwy’s secret enemy kept the plot suspenseful, and there were some interesting twists that I didn’t foresee.

The Rook may not be Great Literature, but it was just so much fun. A sequel, Stiletto, will be published in January 2016, and I will definitely be reading it as soon as I can lay my hands on it.

The Rook — (2012- ) Publisher: “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 bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her. She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own. In her quest to uncover which member of the Chequy betrayed her and why, Myfanwy encounters a person with four bodies, an aristocratic woman who can enter her dreams, a secret training facility where children are transformed into deadly fighters, and a conspiracy more vast than she ever could have imagined. Filled with characters both fascinating and fantastical, THE ROOK is a richly inventive, suspenseful, and often wry thriller that marks an ambitious debut from a promising young writer.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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6 comments

  1. This sounds like a fun book! And I love the idea of merging The X-Men with British bureaucracy.

  2. I am not sure I could get past the heroine’s first name. I think it would jar me every time I saw it!

  3. Tizz /

    It really is a fun book — I read it when it first came out and found it a real page-turner. Worryingly, the release date for the second volume has slipped a bit — now apparently due on 2nd July 2020 (can that really be right?).

    • Tizz, I think the 2020 date was a typo by someone. The publisher’s website and Amazon say Stiletto is due out January 26, 2016.

      • Tizz /

        Phew — Amazon US, I take it, since my information came from Amazon UK. (Trusting this isn’t a geoblocking iossue…)

  4. Brandon Macintyre /

    Rating – 3/5

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