Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel is a smart speculative thriller that has echoes of the Jason Bourne novels & movies (secret government organization and an agent suffering amnesia), of The X-Files (secret government organization created to protect the world from the supernatural), of superhero comics (seemingly ordinary people with superpowers), and Ghostbusters (the goofy side of saving the world from…chanting mold, a dragon hatchling, and various other creatures).
It’s a no-brainer for teens, right? Yes and no. Yes, it is very entertaining and overflows with fun ideas and great characters. On the other hand, the pacing lags at times, and it is long, just a couple pages shy of 500. The letters that so wonderfully and gradually reveal the world in which the “new” Myfanwy finds herself do interrupt the present action. There are a couple lengthy set pieces that seem unnecessary to the plot. Perhaps the author simply couldn’t resist?
Of course, many teens who read fantasy enjoy big, fat books. Once they acclimate to an alternate world, they want to immerse themselves. And among those perhaps superfluous set pieces was one of the novel’s most memorable scenes.
Don’t get me wrong, those letters from the “old” to the “new” Myfanwy, and the background they provide about her life, her co-workers, the workings of the Checquy and her role in it are my favorite things about this novel. My favorite part of any superhero or villain has always been the back-story – how did they become what they are? Here, every member of the Checquy has gone through some kind of training and assimilation. In the Great Britain of the novel, any child displaying special…talents is taken from his or her parents. This is not voluntary, and they rarely see each other again. Children are taken to The Estate, a boarding school where their every move is monitored, every talent exploited and heightened. Myfanwy is no different. (Interestingly, the American version of the Checquy gives families a choice. Not all of them want to give up their children. Some are relieved to be rid of them.)
All this makes the book sound so serious. There is a fun book trailer on The Rook website, which captures its humor. And an excerpt is up on Tor.com, which takes it from the top. “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” Is that a fabulous hook, or what?
Adult/High School–She wakes up in a London park in the pouring rain, surrounded by dead bodies. A letter in her pocket begins, “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” She has a choice–assume Myfanwy Thomas’s identity and investigate what happened, or accept a suitcase full of money and go on the run. She chooses the former and continues reading the letters left to her. She learns that Myfanwy is a Rook, a high-ranking member of the Court of the Checquy, a secret organization that deals with supernatural outbreaks in the U.K. Think of it as a British X-Files, except that its members have supernatural powers. Myfanwy can reach into the minds of her opponents and force them to do her will. She also has terrific administrative and financial skills. She had advanced warning (through a few dubious psychics, including a duck) of her impending memory loss. Or rather, memory theft. She spent a great deal of time investigating, and found evidence of a traitor within the Court. But who? Rook Gestalt, whose four bodies share one mind? Bishop Alrich, the vampire? Lady Farrier, who infiltrates dreams? The traitor has betrayed them to the Checquy’s arch-enemies, the Grafters, a group of mad scientists in Belgium who have been medically transforming human bodies for hundreds of years. The narrative alternates between letters from the original to the current Myfanwy, which provide needed back-story, and the present action, which is full of increasingly bizarre (and at times hilarious) battles against supernatural manifestations. This is a funny, cool, inventive, at times violent and gross trip that teens who are into speculative fiction will thoroughly enjoy.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City