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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Daniel O'Malley: THE ROOK FILES

Author:  Daniel O'Malley
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—1; Humor—3
Publisher and Titles: Little, Brown 
          The Rook (1/2012)
          Stiletto (7/2016)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 7/20/2016 to include a review of Stiletto, the second novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and a review of the first novel, The Rook.

                         NOVEL 2:  Stiletto                         
    In this spirited sequel to the acclaimed The Rook, Myfanwy Thomas returns to clinch an alliance between deadly rivals and avert epic—and slimy—supernatural war. 

    When secret organizations are forced to merge after years of enmity and bloodshed, only one person has the fearsome powers—and the bureaucratic finesse—to get the job done. Facing her greatest challenge yet, Rook Myfanwy Thomas must broker a deal between two bitter adversaries:
The Checquy—the centuries-old covert British organization that protects society from supernatural threats, and… 
The Grafters—a centuries-old supernatural threat. 
     But as bizarre attacks sweep London, threatening to sabotage negotiations, old hatreds flare. Surrounded by spies, only the Rook and two women who absolutely hate each other, can seek out the culprits before they trigger a devastating otherworldly war.

     The first book in this series followed the adventures of Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Alice Thomas as she coped with her missing memories and transformed from a meek, mild bureaucrat into a take-charge leader. In The Rook, we saw Myfanwy unmask the traitors being paid by the villainous Grafters to spy on the Checquy, but in this novel, we see her take the lead in forging a diplomatic merger with that same villainous group. Although Myfanwy appears frequently during the events of Stiletto, the front-and-center lead characters are the Checquy Pawn Felicity Clements and the Grafter Odette Leliefeld, descendant of one of the founders of the Grafters.

     The Checquy use the term "Grafters" as a derogatory name for their enemies, but the group's true name is the Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen, the Scientific Brotherhood of Scientists. It was founded in Belgium in 1474 by alchemists who "directed their attention to the mysteries of the mortal clay. Somehow, working in primitive conditions, they had gained radical insights into biological science, developing techniques that still remained far beyond modern medical understanding. With their knowledge and capabilities, they possesses the ability to twist and warp living flesh to suit their purposes." 

     The hatred and distrust between the Checquy and the Grafters goes all the way back to 1677 when the body-sculpting talents of the Grafters' fleshwrights came to the attention of a local ruler who sought military power. When they were tasked with creating ultimate warriors, the lead alchemists, Ernst and Gerd, needed to test the quality of their creations, so they sent their newly created army across the Channel to Britain, where they waged war on the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight. When the Checquy rose up against them, the Grafters were stunned because they had no knowledge of the existence of the supernatural world. After the Checquy defeated the Grafter troops, they went to Belgium and hunted down any Grafters they could find, killing them on sight, including children. Ernst and Gerd managed to escape, along with a number of other Grafters, and since then they have led quiet lives, keeping out of the spotlight. The Checquy still hate the Grafters for their wholesale slaughter of the civilians on the Isle of Wight and for their brutal torture of any Checquy they captured. The Grafters still hate the Checquy for the wholesale slaughter of the Grafters who played no part in the battle, particularly the the children. Both sides have fanned the flames of this hatred ever since, so when Myfanwy and Ernst decided (at the end of The Rook) to make peace between their peoples, they both knew that they are facing a very difficultperhaps impossibletask.

     There are both similarities and differences between the Grafters and the Checquy: Members of both groups have powers and skills that are well beyond the typical human being. The Checquy are supernatural in nature, with each one being born with some type of preternatural talent. When those talents emerge in infancy or childhood, the children are removed from their parents and put into the Estate, the school in which they learn to control and use their skills. Felicity, for example, was born with Sight. She can touch an inanimate object and "see" its insides, its past, and its present, which means that she is an excellent resource at crime scenes. The Grafters, on the other hand, are fully human when they are born. When they are about ten years old, they can choose to begin getting implants and chemical injections that will change them into "tools" with specific purposes. Odette's body has been fine-tuned so that she functions as a superb surgeon, with enhanced vision and musculature that eliminates the need for the instruments used by most modern surgeons. For her 21st birthday, she was gifted with additional visual implants, and for Valentine's Day, her boyfriend made her a brand new state-of-the-art spleen. Grafters undergo frequent surgical upgrades to keep their biological technology at top levels. The Checquy view the Grafters as barbarians, and the Grafters view the Checquy as inhuman Gruwelsthe Dutch word for demons. Is it possible that these two groups can ever live in peace?

     The book begins when Felicity and her team investigate a mysterious entity that has taken up residence in a row of houses. They believe that this "thing" may be connected with the recent disappearances of a number of people who vanished from their homes. Unfortunately, all of the team members are killed at the scene except for Felicity and Pawn Chopra, who teleports the two of them to safety. Soon thereafter, Felicity is assigned to be Odette's bodyguard, and the two young womenmembers of rival groupsget up-close-and-personal insights into the thoughts, behaviors, and life styles of the enemy. Here is Odette's first impression of a Checquy cocktail party: "At first glance it seemed quite a normal affair. But every once in a while, a shimmer of light would erupt from someone's head, or a figure would vanish abruptly, or a guest would turn and reveal a set of stegosaurus-type plates emerging from the back of a tailored suit. She shuddered."

     O'Malley sets up a series of mysterious characters and events, some that are related to the primary plot and some that are not. For each of these mysteries, the author builds up a suspenseful story line that is not resolved until quite late in the book. There is a person who is killing people by causing long, thick crystals of quartz to punch through their bodies. There is a group called the Antagonists that has been attacking Grafters in Europe and then follows them to Britain. There is a woman who can kill with her voice. There are underground monsters who dig their way out to attack a Scottish village. And more.

     This is a huge book (580 pages) that contains a great deal of exposition, mostly the history of the Grafters and the history of the conflict between the Grafters and the Checquy. That means that the galloping pace sometimes screeches to a complete halt as O'Malley stops the action to fill us in on necessary (and interesting) background information. Some authors would have handled this by publishing one or two "fill-in" novellas, which would have made this book much more sleek and compact. Even though it is a bit overstuffed, Stiletto is a terrific novelhard to put down once you dip into the plot.

     Felicity and Odette (along with Odette's brother Alessio) are charming characters, each with his or her own fears, emotional issues, and strengths. O'Malley excels in characterization as he describes the way the two women tiptoe their way carefully and painfully through the early days of their unwilling relationship. As they are thrown together in a series of dangerous situationsboth social and politicaltrust begins to build between them, and they develop a friendship that will ultimately translate to a strengthening of the emerging partnership between the Checquy and the Grafters as a whole.

     The book has many moments of dry and understated humor. For example, here is the scene in which Alessio is forced to don a British school uniform: "A blazer of lurid orange, lime green, and purple stripes burned Odette's dilated pupils. There was a tie in the same horrendous colors…a pair of gray trousers appeared to be trying to hide themselves so as not to be associated with the blazer and tie…Alessio reached out and took the suit as if it were made out of the scrota of war criminals…beaten down by the knowledge that he would be spending the day with the traditional enemies of his family while wearing a suit that might induce epilepsy in passersby." In a scene in which Odette and Felicity are on a plane that is negotiating a crowded runway, O'Malley dryly points out how important (and overbearing) the Checquy can be towards mere humans: "The craft...weaved its way between the larger, bewildered-looking planes on the tarmac and zipped off into the sky without apology." This book is really fun to read. Side note: O'Malley's dark, dry humor puts me in mind of Simon R. Green's SECRET HISTORIES series. 

     This is a terrific novel with lots of fast-paced suspense, colorful characters, and wry humor. If you loved The Rook, don't miss this great sequel. If you haven't yet read The Rook, read it firstbefore you read StilettoClick HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Stiletto on the novel's, where you should click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

     Set in an alternate London, the series is filled with all manner of people with other-worldly talents and/or weird physical traits. Imagine a 19th century circus freak show and give each of the freaks his or her own powerful magical skill, and you've got the picture. For example, there's a man who can see through human skin, a woman who can cook a person from the inside, a leper who can project his disease instantly and fatally into his enemies, girls who can talk with clouds and get intelligible answers, and a 4-body "person" with a single hive mind. Here's a partial list: "sorcerer, bunyip, golem, goblin, pict, pixie, demon, thylacine, gorgon, moron, cult, scum, mummy, rummy, groke, sphinx, minx, muse, flagellant, diva, reaver, weaver, reaper, scabbarder, scabmettler, dwarf, midget, little person, leprechaun, marshwiggle, totem, soothsayer, truthsayer, hatter, hattifattnener, imp, panwere, mothman, shaman, flukeman, warlock, morlock, poltergeist, zeitgeist, elemental, banshee, manshee, lycanthrope, lichenthrope, sprite, wight, aufwader, harpy, silkie, kelpie, klpeto, specter, mutant, cyborg, balrog, troll, ogre, cat in shoes, bod in a hat, psychic, and psychotic." (p. 219) The author has pulled these creatures from all sorts of myths, legends, and fantasy fictionincluding H. G. Wells' Time Machine, C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of NarniaChina Mieville's Bas-Lag novels, Chris Carter's X-Files, and Laurell K. Hamilton's ANITA BLAKE series.

     Controlling all of these magical, and potentially dangerous, people is the job of the Checquy (pronounced shek-eh), which is a term used in Heraldry to describe a checkerboard. The Checquy is a highly secretive organization with its ranks named, aptly enough, after chess pieces. 

     The Court of the Checquy is the executive council that oversees the entire organization. At the very top are the Lord and Lady. Below them are the two Chevaliers (supervisors), then the two Bishops (responsible for foreign operations), and finally, the two Rooks (responsible for domestic operations). The two lowest levels are the Pawns and the Retainers, with the difference between them being that the Pawns have powers and the Retainers don't. The soldiers of the Checquy are called the Barghests. In the U.S., an offshoot of the Checquy is called the Croatoan. The book pokes some serious fun at the Checquy bureaucracy, with its by-the-book Pawns, endless stacks of paperwork, and behind-the-scenes secretaries and assistants who really run the show.

     Here is an example of O'Malley's dry humor as he describes the club of Sir Henry Wattleman (aka Lord of the Checquy): "It...was decorated in a very specific style that showed the decorators were lacking both imagination and a second X chromosome....The carpet didn't shag and very likely never had. Even the light filtering through the windows was tired and respectable. Leather-covered armchairs were occupied by the elderly, the plump, the male....Cigars were chewed, pipes sucked, and snuff snuffled." (p. 98)

                         NOVEL 1:  The Rook                         
     I'll begin this review by saying that this is the best paranormal fiction book I've read in a long, long time. The mythology is inventive and fresh, the world-building is unbelievably detailed (but in a fascinating, non-boring way), the clever humor is witty and sly, and the characters are quirky and fully developed to the nth degree. It's not a perfect book, but the compelling story line and surprise-on-every-page action kept me reading well into the wee hours. 

     Think back to the "Tabula Rasa" episode of Buffy the Vampire Killerthe one where Buffy and company became amnesiacs. That will give you a general idea of the premise for this novel. The opening sentence sets up the plot: "Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine." That body belongs to Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Alice Thomas, who wakes up one night in a rain-soaked London park and finds herself surrounded by dead people wearing latex gloves. Myfanwy has no memory of who she is, where she is, or who the dead people are, but she finds two letters in her jacket pocket explaining that she is in reality a new Myfanwy, who is one of the Rooks of the Checquy. The old Myfanwy, who is called Thomas throughout the book, had her memory wiped clean by an unknown enemy. Thomas knew what was going to happen to her, so she wrote a whole suitcase full of letters to her future self explaining her life and filling in all of the blanks that she could think of so that the future Myfanwy would have a chance of surviving. Thomas gives Myfanwy a choice between fleeing the country or staying to fight, and Myfanwy chooses to stay so that she can find out who did this to her and then punish him or heror them.

     The story follows Myfanwy as she bluffs her way through each work day, relying completely on Thomas's letters and her own intelligence and wit to provide the facts and details she needs to speak the proper words, go to the right places, and make the appropriate decisions. As Myfanwy reads the letters, meets her fellow Court members, and gets thrown into several huge magical messes, she surprises the Checquy Court members because she is not at all like Thomas, who was a meek, delicate, plain-Jane workaholic. Myfanwy adds some color to Thomas' life, along with a tough-girl attitude, new magical powers, and a tendency to talk back.

     Eventually, Myfanwy uncovers the fact that an old nemesis of the Checquythe Graftersare back in business after having been defeated a century ago. The Grafters are conscienceless fleshcrafters who carve and transplant and graft body partsnot always humaninto and onto human bodies, which results in monsters who are nearly unkillable. Now, the Grafters have infiltrated the Checquy Court, and Myfanwy must find and unmask the traitor(s)

     The primary weakness in the plot is the addition of Myfanwy's sister to the story. I'm sure that story line will be further explored in the sequel, but in this book it seemed superfluous (except that it was probably the only way that the author could think of to get Myfanwy away from her bodyguard and out on the town for a necessary plot-related scene). The structure of the book worked for me, with the letters (always in italics) sprinkled throughout the story, mostly coordinating with the action that Myfanwy is facing at the time. Myfanwy's own thoughts are also in italics, so sometimes it is somewhat difficult to tell whether an italicized section is part of Thomas's letter or Myfanwy's thoughts, but it didn't really slow down the reading for me.

     This is definitely not a genre novel. The mythology is extremely detailed, with most of the supporting characters having complex backstories with lots of fascinating details. For example, for one Court member who is a vampire, we get the fascinating story of his birthwhen he was hatched from an egg! This is world-building with depth and breadth. Unlike the typical UF heroine, Myfanwy has no romantic hero or best friend to help her out; she's completely on her own because she can't let anyone know about her memory loss or about the traitor she is hunting down. Myfanwy is a terrific heroine because of her smart, funny, take-no-prisoners approach to her new life and because she has such intelligent reactions to the weird situations in which she constantly finds herself. 

     Most of the story lines are resolved, but there are a few left open for the sequel, which I am eagerly awaiting. Click HERE to read the first four chapters of The RookClick HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from The Rook on the novel's, where you should click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

1 comment:

  1. The Rook may not be a candidate for literary immortality, but it is the most enjoyable book I have read all summer. It is creative, funny, and engaging. The magical and fantastic elements are neatly conceived and the plot just tumbles you along. The central characters are interesting and more nuanced (especially the heroine) than is usual in supernatural thrillers.
    What a fun, charming novel - I can't wait for the sequel.