If reviewing The Rook was a simple matter of endorsing its concept, the quality of its prose, and the strength of its characters, this would be a much shorter review. I give O’Malley’s novel high marks in all three categories. The secret government organization is always a blast in light of the general predisposition to believe governments hide all kinds of awesome things. Along with the premise, O’Malley demonstrates excellent control of the action. He never leaves anything unclear and I never lacked a comprehensive picture of the scenes or the characters in them.
It’s unfortunate then that The Rook reads like it was written for the sole purpose of showcasing O’Malley’s imaginings of the Chequy and its inner-workings. Parts of the narrative (guestimate around 25%) are told through the text of dozens of letters — some of which move the conspiracy plot along, others that simply provide background. Letter after letter, especially in the early going, reads like an RPG dossier, dumping a kitchen-sink’s-worth of world building into the reader’s lap. To paraphrase one example:
Myfanwy: Oh look, there are these elite units in the Chequy called the Barghast. I wonder if I wrote a letter to myself about this because I sure don’t remember anything.
Old Myfanwy: I thought you might want to know about the Barghat. They’re special forces and let me give you their history.
[Three Pages Later]
Old Myfanwy: And that’s what the Barghast are.
Myfanwy: Well, I’ll be.
Many of the asides have little to no bearing on moving the narrative forward, instead focusing on self-indulgent information apropos of nothing. I found myself putting The Rook down every time a letter surfaced. I’d roll my eyes and go do something else. The phenomenon worked both ways. Once I returned to the novel, I’d get into the letter, engrossed in Original-Recipe-Myfanwy, and dread the return to Extra-Crispy.
Furthermore, why the hell wouldn’t Disk-Format-Error-Myfanwy just read all the damn letters in the first weekend? O’Malley dribbles out the left behind knowledge all the way to the final pages. Obviously done for dramatic effect, I found it a lot more annoying than nail biting. My frustration stems from the fact that the amnesia story line wasn’t necessary other than as a means to world build, which to be quite honest feels like a cheap gimmick.
Despite the negatives, and they are legion as they relate to pace and structure, I can still recommend The Rook to some readers, with some trepidation. The premise and characters are good enough to provide substantial entertainment and the conspiracy/mystery is well executed. I think many urban fantasy acolytes will find a great deal to enjoy here. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those. For me, the removal of the amnesia plot device in its entirety would have made for a stronger novel. It would have allowed the world building to occur organically and provided an opportunity for actual character growth as opposed to the convenient manifestation of the stereotypical snarky no-nonsense female urban fantasy protagonist.
But, that isn’t the book Daniel O’Malley wrote. So I instead I can only say, maybe the next one will be better. I hope so.