Thursday, 12 September 2013

Daniel O'Malley: The Rook

For an American, Daniel O'Malley has a goodish ear for British English. For a certain kind of book - for example, a book about how humanity has been in a struggle with the supernatural for centuries - you're boxed in from the start. You're going to have to set it in England, and embed it firmly in the establishment, and it's going to need to reek, somehow, of tradition. So if you have the characters pulling out their billfolds every few minutes, or asking the guys to listen up, all those little breaks with reality are going to make it that bit harder for your readers to believe the big breaks with reality. I could somehow tell O'Malley was not a natural Brit, but until I read the author bit at the back of the book, I thought he might be Australian. So at least he didn't trip on the details, though of course all Americans working that genre now have an eleventy million page primer in the shape of JK Rowling and Harry Potter, and a billion YA novels written in the hope that Potter was an endless seam of gold.

Which brings me to the "Eh, but…" part of the review. The Rook is another one of those books I ripped through at a pretty epic pace despite it not being all that good. In fact, perhaps because of it not being good. However, unlike with Lee Child, at first I was rushing because the book was garlanded with good reviews and had won awards and such as, so I was running on through the weak-ish opening and waiting for the wonderful to cut in. Let me save the rest of you some time; it doesn't. Let me direct you to a better way of spending your time; if you want to read an "urban fantasy" novel about a powerful secret organisation battling eldritch horrors in modern England, start here. Charlie Stross has totally got your back. Better yet, there are several of them, each taking a wild rip through a specific sub genre of thriller. The Laundry is just boss. Accept no substitutes. 

If, on the other hand, you want to read a book in which a frail vulnerable girl turns out to have incredible super powers which solve every problem she runs into, cause everyone who ignored her to suddenly realise she's marvellous and gorgeous, and let her schwack every opponent; Jesus, what the hell are you doing reading this blog? Go read The Rook immediately. You'll love it, and what I'm going to do next will ruin it for you.

Where to start? The book starts with amnesia, which is, of course, bollocks. Our intrepid heroine wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, unable to remember who she is or anything about her life, but weirdly completely clued in how to speak English, how to drive a car, how cutlery works, the local geography of London, who the Prime Minister is, and a whole lot of other stuff which most educated people have to google these days. This is what TV Tropes helpfully calls Laser Guided Amnesia and it is the kind of bollocks which drags on the ground when you try to walk, and hurts a lot if you try to go too far. Myfanwy Thomas (because why the hell not) starts out with amnesia, which turns out to be marvellously convenient for the author  who has to deal with the problem of explaining a whole other world without wheeling on Basil Exposition every couple of pages. We can have a heroine in a central position to the plot who has a perfect excuse for needing endless info-dumps from someone - in this case, her own previous self, who saw all this coming and prepared a huge purple binder full of cheat sheets and an endless series of letters telling her side of the story which we get in alternating chapters just when they can clear up the latest bit of confusion. Quite why the original Myfanwy didn't put it all on an iPad isn't clear. Quite why new Myfanwy doesn't read all the letters the first evening …. People in books don't be practical, much.

Remember the way I keep bitching about the way fantasy books put the hero on one end of the map without a goddam clue, and the problem way the hell over on the other side of the map, and how cool it would be if for once the hero was a professional on the spot instead? O'Malley actually got a fragment of that memo, since Myfanwy's real identity is as an impossibly senior member of the Chequy, a cheesily chess-themed secret opera who deploy weird secret powers against other weird secret powers. So the heroine is in the right job and in the right place, but hasn't a clue how to do the job. Two out of three … no, I'm not in a forgiving mood.

The Chequy is a hoot really; even ubiquitous magic doesn't really explain how it could finance its operations, let alone conceal them (though given the real-life abuses of truth, liberty and common decency people ignore every day of their lives, I don't know why I think they'd notice super soldiers disintegrating eldritch horrors on the main street). And if O'Malley had any friends actually working in the civil service anywhere, they must be worn out punching him in the face for his depiction of overpaid bosses living lives of luxury. The Chequy management live more like merchant bankers than any civil servant - Myfanwy had six different cars. And a limo service 

The brand new doesn't-know-what-she's-doing Myfanwy takes to all of this with implausible ease, turning every Freaky Friday moment into another triumph of common sense and innate coolness. Her previous self had piddling superpowers she could never bring herself to use, crippling shyness, and a freakish ability to organise offices; the new model transcends all these limitations without even giving it too much thought; it's like she's her own Mary Sue. Before the book is through she's the scariest thing in the whole organisation. Mind you, half way through the book it becomes clear that the organisation's been corrupted from within, and the only reason she was in a powerful job in the first place was that the bad guys wanted someone timid and useless doing the job; likewise half the reason she gets away with impersonating herself is that half her bosses are on the take to the bad guys and the other half are too divorced from reality to notice anything different about her. Also, because I've got to be reasonable, there is an equally good explanation for the laser-guided amnesia.

Things that all of this is borrowed from; eldritch secret organisation with a school which takes kids with special powers and trains them to be magnificent? Yup. All chick-lit ever? Yup. Sparkly vampires? Kinda. Hunger Games? Surprisingly, no.

Things that no-one else has ever done? Making the big bad enemy which threatens to overthrow all of the Empire ... Belgium. That, I did not see coming.

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