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Why should boys get all the XP?

Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook is basically would happen if you tried to blend Torchwood and the Bourne Identity together and then threw in a dash of Harry Potter for good measure. The premise is intriguing – Myfanwy Thomas, our female lead, wakes up in a body previously occupied by…herself, essentially, though she’s completely lost her memory. Only a letter from her previous self helps lead her to the truth, pushing her head first into a world of supernatural bureaucracy. And I wanted to like it, I really did. I’m a sucker for a good supernatural crime plot and nothing sounds more fun than a lost identity and a secret government entity committed to solving supernatural situations on the DL for the good of king and country. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, quite a lot. Whatever creativity the author displayed in writing this story was almost immediately negated by a subpar grasp of language and a belief in his own wit over his actual ability. It was supremely disappointing to get caught up in a scene involving the liquefaction and subsequent regurgitation of an entire invasion force by a house filled with flashing lights and chanting, only to have the repeated descriptions of the “tech nerds” thrown around without any apparent need to describe them any further than a basic stereotype; one woman was actually described as “the plump nerd.” She’s considered catty as well, but nothing she says actually indicates that she’s being catty. Elsewhere, characters are described simply as “attractive-looking” or worse, “anorexic-looking.” This last was used to describe a bodyguard whose only other descriptor was his race. The sheer number of times the descriptions were watered down to a combination of hyphens and very little else easily outnumbered the times he chose, seemingly at random, to fully describe some aspect of his favored villains or a plot device of choice. What was clearly intended to feel as a quick, dismissive impression as perceived by the female lead ends up feeling sloppy, even lazy. 

Meanwhile, in a scramble to reveal just the right amount of plot devices and worldbuilding as the right time, the author uses a series of letters from the Myfanwy’s past self to help establish the plot. At first, the letters build suspense and set the stage for coming confrontations. Some 250 pages later, however, readers are still receiving direct info dumps from the Past!Myfanwy and it starts to wear thin. Every time a new letter cropped up, I could practically hear my high school writing teacher yelling, “Show, not tell!” Incidentally, these letters display some of the best writing in the book. Past!Myfanwy isn’t what you’d call a brave character, much to the scorn of her current incarnation, but in these letters she’s free to be strong, bitter, reflective, and even funny (see: The Ghost of Pimpings Past and other such setups). The author hits a stride with her voice and it feels strong and consistent, even when the letters disrupt the action with a few pages of backstory.

Speaking of the middle of the book – suddenly vampires! Yeah. A goth vampire, no less, with flowing blood-red hair and ambiguous motives. Not that the vampire is even directly related to the plot itself. He just sits in the background, brooding and providing a vague, horrifying sort of entertainment when he shows up at a night club in a mesh shirt, claiming to have smelled Myfanwy on the wind. It was an unfortunate turn of events to have gone from the creativity of every other character’s superpowers and to then suddenly be presented with…a vampire. It felt like a cop out, honestly, especially after all the buildup with that particular character throughout the beginning of the book. I wish I could tell you these vampires seriously contributed to the end of the book, as entertainment or otherwise, but they didn’t. For all the buildup to the final showdown, it was stunningly neat, easy and overwhelmingly mediocre. 

Let’s face it, any author capable of thinking up and writing a character who has a single consciousness with four bodies and four brains to draw on, all of which operate simultaneously, deserves some credit for his creativity. Still, the lack of command and control shown over the writing destroyed my ability to appreciate the plot of this novel. If the greatest strength of this novel was it’s creative, tongue-in-cheek approach to supernatural crime fighting, it was brought down by the overestimation of its actual wit and a decided lack of cohesion.

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