The Rook by Daniel O’Malley – Review

The RookTitle: The Rook
Author: Daniel O’Malley
Publisher: HarperCollins (Aus)
ISBN: 978-0-7322-9539-4

Author: Daniel O’Malley is an Australian author, born and schooled in Canberra. After studying world history and medieval history in American universities, he returned to Australia is 2004. He now works for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, handling communications connected with investigations of plane crashes and runaway boats. The Rook is his first published novel.


“Dear You, 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 corpses – all wearing latex gloves (and startled expressions). With no memory of who she is or how she got there, the only way she can discover her identity and escape those who want to destroy her is to follow the instructions in a series of letters left behind by her former self…

When I first received The Rook, I wasn’t sure it was going to be my sort of thing. The cover contains a review quote – ‘Part Bourne Identity, part X-Men, and with a hefty dose of Monty Python‘ – and the next two pages are replete with glowing review extracts, all inviting a mixed-bag of comparisons: ‘Harry Potter meets Ghostbusters meets War of the Worlds‘; Buffy joins Ghostbusters; X-Men; Bourne Identity; Monty Python. There’s a lot of hype right there in those first two pages, and a conflicting message that seems to say nobody really knows what this book is trying to be. That bothered me.

I’ve been burnt a few times lately, by books that have been over-hyped by their publishers but which fall well short of the projected wonder, originality and excitement said to be contained therein. I’ve got a lot of books on my To-Be-Read Pile and I’m not one to waste time on a novel that promises more that it can deliver. I’m a person who has become jaded by marketing hype, and I don’t suffer fools gladly. So, even before I started The Rook, I was setting myself up for disappointment.

I wasn’t too many pages into the novel before I realised something important; it wasn’t the book that didn’t know what it was trying to be – I suspect that author Daniel O’Malley knows exactly what he wanted The Rook to be – it was the reviewers who didn’t quite know what they were reading and were desperate to find comparisons to things already familiar to them. Like when we try a delicious new fruit for the first time, a taste we have never really encountered… it’s sort of sweet like a kiwi-fruit, but soft like a peach, and there’s a bit of cranberry tartness there too, and ummmm, maybe a hint of lime’s acidity? We might not know exactly what we’re tasting, we might try and pigeonhole it with our already catalogued library of tastes, but in the end all we know is that it is good and no comparison will really do it the justice it deserves.

So, now it is my turn to try and describe this strange new fruit…

The Rook is a spy-thriller, a tale of supernatural horror, and a commentary on government bureaucracy filled with the dry-wit and sly-humour of someone who knows their genre tropes. It’s a novel that leads the reader through it’s myriad twists and turns with both gentle ease and increasing surreality. It’s Lovecraft and Dilbert and the TV series Spooks all mashed together into something resembling one of the novel’s ‘Grafters’ – a Frankenstein’s monster of familiar parts, all sewn together into a creature new and disturbing and often quite funny.

To begin with, The Rook has two main protagonists… both named Myfanwy Thomas.

The Myfanwy Thomas we know from the ‘now’ of the book wakes up in a body not her own and with no memory of who she is. All she has to guide her are letters written by the Myfanwy Thomas who used to inhabit her body.

The Myfanwy Thomas of the letters is quiet, timid, and a very effective bureaucrat for a secret government agency known as The Checquy; an agency tasked with protecting the UK, totally unbeknownst to the public, from all manner of supernatural threats.

The Myfanwy Thomas of the ‘now’, the one who must read and follow the letters in order to discover herself, and solve the mystery of who is trying to kill her and destroy the Checquy, is a very different person… or at least she becomes so over the course of the novel. The ‘new’ Myfanwy Thomas is no timid bureaucrat. In fact, the new Myfanwy Thomas becomes totally kick-arse as she explores her powers (both supernatural and bureaucratic) and faces all manner of horrors from semi-intelligent slime-moulds to genetically manufactured monstrosities.

Add in a cast of eccentric and twisted Checquy colleagues, and some even more twisted enemies, and The Rook is a strange mix of action, spycraft, horror, humour and office politics that works a treat.

Despite all the other comparisons, the one that most other reviewers seemed to have missed but seemed closest to me, is the ‘Bob Howard/Laundry’ tales by Charles Stross. But even then, such a comparison is not adequate. In the end, like that strange new fruit, you’ll just have to try The Rook for yourselves. No matter what your tastes, I’m sure you’ll find that it is good.

Review by Andrew J McKiernan

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About Andrew J McKiernan

Andrew J McKiernan is an author and illustrator living and working on the Central Coast of New South Wales. His stories have been published in magazines such as Aurealis and Midnight Echo and in numerous anthologies. He has twice (2009 & 2010) been shortlisted for both Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards, as well as a Ditmar Award shortlisting in 2010. His illustrations have appeared in books and magazine as well as gracing their covers.

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