The Rook

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley is hands-down the best urban fantasy that I have read in the past couple of years. I don’t know why, but it seems like urban fantasy set in London has a higher-than-average chance of being fantastic. The Rook is right up there with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere for me when it comes to inventive supernatural craziness going down in England.

The story centers around Myfanwy Thomas (pronounced like “Tiffany”) who wakes up in the rain with no memory, surrounded by dead people wearing latex gloves, and a letter in her pocket telling her that “the body you are wearing used to be mine.”

If that isn’t enough to get you to start reading the book, I don’t know what is. The book’s fascinating premise is its own best sales pitch.

Myfanwy discovers that she holds the position of Rook in the British secret government organization known as the Chequy (all the upper positions are named after chess pieces), and that the previous Myfanwy Thomas was betrayed by person or person’s unknown within the organization. The book is about two thirds her trying to figure out the organization, her own unique powers, and deal with the metric ton of problems that crop up on her watch and one third the letters and correspondence from the previous Myfanwy which serve as excellent world-building (and a fairly heart-wrenching look at her body’s previous owner’s life and thoughts).

I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Plot summary

The plot summary contains spoilers! Show it anyway.

Myfanwy opens her eyes in the rain with no memory, surrounded by dead people in latex gloves. A letter in her pocket claims to be from the woman who used to live in her body, and directs her to a bank where she has a choice: one lock box will give her a new life far away from Britain, albeit one that might be short as whoever caused her loss of memory and personality might be gunning for her. The other will allow her to take on the life of the body’s previous owner and attempt to bring the person who betrayed her to justice.

Myfanwy, being an intelligent sort, fully intends to take the first box until she is jumped in the bank by three more people wearing latex gloves and lays them out cold without touching them. Realizing that there is definitely some crazy junk going on with her, she takes the second box and adopts Myfanwy Thomas’ life and identity.

She goes to the Chequy for her first day of work and meets numerous people, including her secretary Ingrid and fellow Rook Gestault (although she only meets two of his four bodies at that point). She begins to acclimate to her duties and meets the other higher ups in the Chequy:

Bishops Alrich (a vampire) and Conrad Grantchester, Chevaliers Heretic Gubbins and Joshua Eckhart, Lord Henry Wattleman and Lady Linda Farrier. Soon enough a man is captured entering the country and revealed to be one of the Grafters, a Belgian scientist cult capable of making incredible biological modifications to bodies.

The American Bishops (America having a similar organization from colonial times) come to visit to talk about the Grafters, and Myfanwy makes friends with Bishop Shantay. Both go to the field when a distress call comes in about a house that is apparently consuming people.

They discover the house overgrown with a strange fungus, which Myfanway is able to destroy using her powers. While there, they also discover a Chequy operative, who is evidently involved with the problem and incriminates Gestault.

Returning to the Chequy, Myfanwy accuses Gestault of treason at a diplomatic dinner for the Americans, causing him to lead most of the Retainers (non-powered members of the Chequy) in revolt and successfully killing Heretic Gubbins. Two of Gestault’s bodies are imprisoned thanks to Myfanwy’s powers, but refuse to give up anything other than the fact that there is another traitor (which Myfanwy already figured out thanks to Gestault being good for little more than kicking ass).

Meanwhile, we learn that the previous Myfanwy (who the main character thinks of as “Thomas”) had discovered that someone was filtering funds from the Chequy in order to fund a second Estate-like place in Wales where children were being trained and surgically altered.

Myfanwy’s sister Bronwyn finds her around then, and they reunite. When Myfanwy goes out to a nightclub with her sister (dodging her body guards) she is picked up by one of the two founders of the Grafters, who threatens her to find his partner within three days.

Unfortunately, this leader is not stable, and he activates a biological weapon in Reading which consumes multiple police officers and creates a blob-like cube that is capable of repurposing their biological tissue. Myfanwy is once again able to defeat it with her powers, but it is a very near thing.

Myfanwy figures out who the traitor is, and calls an emergency meeting to confront him. However, when she reaches the board room the only person there is the traitor himself, Conrad Grantchester. He owns most of the people in communications and intercepted her call.

Myfanwy is captured, Conrad and she trade stories of how they did stuff, and then Conrad’s Wales-based flunky goes to suck out her mind (again). Fortunately, she is able to stab him with her epi-pen, which disrupts the careful balance of hormones and chemicals in his body and kills him. She is able to take over another agent’s body, shoot and kill Gestault’s one female body, and stop the other Gestault body from escaping. Sadly, Conrad escapes.

Meanwhile, Joshua Eckhart is able to track down and kill the crazed Grafter founder, thanks to the communications he had sent Myfanwy about the biological cube attack.

Myfanwy returns to her office, where she discovers a naked Belgian: the second founder of the Grafters, who shipped himself to her as a heart, and then regrew his body in the Chequy freezers. Apparently, the Grafters want to integrate with the Chequy, and were planning on using the infiltration as a sort of “join with us or die” approach (not too well thought out). Of course, Myfanwy has all but single-handedly wiped out the infiltration on her own, but she is still interested in merging the two groups to prevent further bloodshed. She also intimates that she finds the Grafter attractive.

The book ends with an agent having discovered Conrad Grantchester and poised to (presumably) kill him or take him in, the merger between Grafters and Chequy going forward, and Myfanwy finally happily settling into her life.

One other opinion

  1. Kirstin says:

    BUT! Who did the dirty shirt in the end belong to????