So I’m at my local bookstore and I see a new paperback with the line at the top, “ON HER MAJESTY’S SUPERNATURAL SECRET SERVICE.” Given some of the stories at the heart of the Sillyverse, which feature a magical organization attached to the U.S. Secret Service, how could I resist picking this up? I couldn’t. So I bought The Rook, a fantasy adventure by Daniel O’Malley that came out in 2012. And I like it very much, thank you, although not because it features an organization of magicians, no. I like it because it’s an interesting character study.
The obvious story line is about an organization of people with exceptional magical talents, who work for a semi-governmental organization in Britain called the Checquy Group responsible for defending the Realm, secretly. Their great opponents are a group of extraordinary alchemists/scientists called the Grafters, who naturally originate in Belgium (as would make sense to any Monty Python fan). The Grafters, having almost been wiped out by the Checquy a few centuries back, are out for revenge, and have succeeded in subverting part of the Checquy.
Sounds a bit complicated? You have no idea. A lot of the book is an information dump, O’Malley taking us on a limited (by encyclopedic standards) tour of the book’s universe, including a side view of the United States and what happened to the Checquy there as a result of the War for American Independence. If you like that sort of thing, it’s great fun, rather like Conan Doyle having Watson drop the names of cases Sherlock Holmes worked on but we never get to read. O’Malley can make all sorts of amusing references, without the trouble of explaining them in depth. And it’s great fodder for a sequel.
Now, I must say in O’Malley’s favor that he provides an explanatory framework for these information dumps. Our protagonist, Myfanwy (rhymes with “Tiffany”) Thomas is a high member of this organization who awakens with all of her personal memories gone. So she must try to hold down her job and socialize without knowing much about who she is, or rather, was. Worse, she finds out from her previous personality, through letters penned before she lost her memory, that someone is subverting the Checquy for unknown purposes, and that party is responsible for her loss of memory. So the loss of memory is organically tied to the plot. Neatly done, O’Malley. Better than the standard use of a person in training, which is how we usually get the information dumps in other sci-fi/fantasy books.
What to me makes this a fascinating novel is that Myfanwy’s character changes a great deal from her pre-amnesiac self to her post-amensiac self. O’Malley’s making a case that nurture can dramatically affect how a personality develops, and his portrayal is quite plausible. Myfanwy is traumatized in her youth, and so becomes a timid and withdrawn person, fearful of using her powers. But stripped of her memories of trauma, she blossoms and becomes a much more powerful personality, in more ways than one. It’s the contrast between the two personalities, which also plays other roles in the development of the plot, that really drives this story and makes it interesting.
Does the book have faults? Well, yeah (even apart from information dumps, if you consider that a flaw). There’s an unexplained bit of prophesy necessary to get the plot running. And to my mind, the ending, which does tie up a lot of loose ends, seems a bit forced and hurried. Still, I read it in a day, even though it’s 482 pages long. That is a recommendation.