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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.


Review: The Hunger Games (movie)

Spoilers below, obviously. If you haven’t read the books or seen the movie, move on.

First off, things I liked:

  • Seneca Crane’s beard
  • Haymitch, mostly
  • Clove
  • Actually seeing the age of District 1 and 2 tributes while they’re hunting Katniss. They spend a lot of time laughing and joking like a bunch of highschool bullies, which was really striking.
  • Seeing District 12 become a reality. It was a fairly convincing mining town and the contrast between the town and the capitol peacekeepers strolling around in their stark white modern outfits was one of the few things that made the tyranny of the capitol seem like a reality.
  • Not dealing with Katniss being confused about boys (which is in itself problematic, but we’ll get to that).
  • No, seriously, Seneca Crane’s beard.

Two plus hours, and that’s the best I can do. That should probably tell you something right there.

My major issue with the movie was the pacing, which is one of things I thought the books did well. That pacing was completely lost in the movie, which tries hard to capture the whirl of Katniss getting chosen as tribute and getting whisked away to the Capitol. Instead, you end up blitzing through a sterilized version of the story, losing any depth and nuance the plot and characters had in the books. This isn’t entirely unexpected, considering the change in perspective means the inability to hear Katniss’ inner dialogue, but it is a major loss for the movie as a whole, one that it couldn’t necessarily afford to take.

As a result, Katniss turns into a much more collected, much more emotionally engaged and personable character. You are told that Katniss has difficulty making friends, but it is difficult to see why. Instead of a stolid bastion of badass hunting skills with a lack of social skills, you get a Katniss that sobs wildly over Rue and seems a bit cardboard, but otherwise charming on the Capitol broadcast. If this is the hard, teeth-pulling work of her PR team, as it was in the book, you don’t get that in the movie, which is too busy jumping from scene to scene to spend time developing any relationships at all.

At first it’s just little things that go missing, like the reason Foxface gets her nickname, but it builds. The mayor’s daughter is cut out entirely, as is the avox girl Katniss recognizes. The avox girl in particular is a major loss for the story. The full cruelty and tyranny of the Capitol as witnessed through the avox girl is essentially glossed over, a loss filled by a fleeting comment about the potential of the Capitol taking out the tongues of the rebellious. What we’re left with is a sterilized version of a book that, in my opinion, was already struggling to achieve the goals it set for itself. Where the books show the true warmth of Cinna’s personality, for instance, the quick pace of the movie leaves little room for more than a few instances of “oh, this is a good man, I am supposed to like him.” The sense of kindredness that you see grow between Katniss and Cinna disappears almost in its entirety. Also missing are the absolutely crucial interactions with the rest of Cinna’s beauty team, whose bubbly anticipation for the games slowly becomes more tempered as they grow to love Katniss and Peeta and are faced with the realization that she could die. It’s the most intimate image readers receive of the differences between the Capitol crowd’s reality tv expectations, the government’s manipulation, and the Districts’ dread and oppression.

The same happens to the relationship between Rue and Katniss, a relationship that is clearly meant to be an emotional climax of the Games. While the movie does manage to make Rue’s death the most emotional moment – followed, perhaps, by Thresh killing Clove – it is still devoid of its full significance. Neither Katniss nor Rue have a chance to talk about their home districts, for instance, leaving us no reason to understand that Katniss surrounding Rue’s body with flowers is anything more than a noble tribute. Without the added understanding about the hovercrafts being televised while taking away each dead body, those watching the movie have no reason to suspect that the flowers are a potent statement to the audiences watching in the Capitol and the districts alike. While this is still one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, it loses its fullness of the book’s worldbuilding accomplishments. And I say that as someone who found the book’s worldbuilding to be one of its few assets.

My major complaint about the books is that you have a hard, gritty world full of unquestionably dark moral confrontations and peopled by primarily shallow characters pretending to fit in. Part of this could be attributed to the age group the book is being marketed for, but even so I can point to a number of YA books in equally dark worlds that don’t have this problem. To further sterilize this story, as the movie does, and take away the elements of plot that add depth and darkness, leaves a narrative that achieves very little of its original intent. Nothing exemplified that for me as much as the end of the Games. Instead of watching the Capitol put a shiny gloss over the broken, bloody victors, tidying up their wounds as if they’d never happened for the benefit of the Capitol viewers, we watch Haymitch send in the ever magical Capitol meds just in time for the perfect deus ex machina. There isn’t even a chance to appreciate the intended struggle Haymitch experiences to get this sponsor gift. Where at least the final scenes of the book leave the Capitol to do some mending for the sake of their manipulative game, the movie leaves everything to one dire warning from Haymitch, wiping away all consequence from the bloodbath and all substance from the story.

But at least Katniss and Peeta got to hold hands, right?

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