Monday, 19 November 2012

The Rook: Book Review

I picked The Rook up free at GenreCon in Sydney, Australia – part of the free goodie bag every conference attendee receives. Though it was outside my main reading tastes (i.e. not epic fantasy), the blurb intrigued me, and it certainly contained enough elements of the supernatural for me to say ‘close enough is good enough’. 

Myfanwy Thomas (pronounced Miffany, to rhyme with Tiffany, rather than the correct Welsh pronunciation – ugh) opens her eyes in a park, surrounded by a ring of dead men, with a letter addressed to ‘You’ from ‘Me’ – the former occupant of the body. 

Intriguing, but I must confess the initial chapters had me most confused as to whether this was a case of body-switching (my first impression) or amnesia. By about a quarter of the book, I’d settled comfortably on amnesia, but a quarter is too much to be confused and I was disappointed because I’d misunderstood, and the body-switching sounded far more interesting than garden variety amnesia. 

Guided by the letters, Myfanwy must decide whether to find out who is trying to kill her (the former ‘her’) or escape to a life of comfortable anonymity. Having chosen to flee her unknown assassins, she is thwarted in the attempt by an attack at the bank where she is to retrieve instructions on how to make a clean escape. When she mysteriously leaves her assailants unconscious, she instead elects to resume her former life and hunt down the person trying to kill her. 

Myfanwy discovers she is a ‘Rook’ in the Checquy, UK government department tasked with controlling the supernatural – one of the eight powerful leaders of the organisation, and possessed of supernatural powers of her own. Using comprehensive notes left by her predecessor, who knew she was to lose her memory, she bluffs her way through her first few days of fumbling ignorance to secure her position in the organisation. Once established, she sets out to find the traitor in their midst, and stave off an ancient, powerful enemy from the Checquy’s past.  

While the plot was intriguing and enjoyable, and by the end I was completely enthralled and found myself compelled to finish, desperate to know the identity of the traitor, I found the book suffered from a number of problems that on a pickier day would have led me to drop the book like a hot potato. As it was, I was at least halfway in before I felt fully invested, and that is far too late.

Myfanwy. What kind of person would take someone whose name is pronounced ‘Miffany’ seriously? Worse, someone called her ‘Miffy’. My toddler watches a cartoon with a rabbit called Miffy. I cannot abide it. I have no idea what purpose this incorrect pronunciation of the name was intended to serve. When Myfanwy’s long lost sister turned up, it appeared Myfanwy had been mispronouncing her own name (not that revelation change anything). Given she was old enough to know how to pronounce her own name when she was taken into government training, I’ve no idea how this happened, or why it happened, except to annoy the reader. 

Also, the reappearance of the sister seemed gratuitous and served no purpose, except to conveniently offer a villain leverage over Myfanwy – despite the fact neither the current Myfanwy, nor her predecessor, knew or had any emotional connection to the sister. 

Myfanwy made a number of huge errors in her impersonation of herself in the early days, and didn’t appear to make much attempt at all to behave consistent with what she did know about her predecessor (granted, not much). I concede I’d probably have wanted to shake things up since it seems the old Myfanwy was a bit of a wet dishrag, but she did it accidentally, in a fumbling, ignorant kind of way. 

Amazingly, only one person figured out what had happened, and that person kept their mouth shut. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d expect a senior member of a covert operation to be interrogated if there was even a suspicion they were being impersonated, and even more so in a covert supernatural organisation where perhaps the idea of someone being replaced isn’t so completely far-fetched. But despite noticing she was behaving differently, no one said a thing. This was largely attributed to the power Myfanwy wielded as Rook, but at the same time it was apparent other staff treated her as a laughing-stock. This stretched my credulity. 

The letters from Myfanwy’s predecessor (and there were a few) provided the author with a convenient excuse to infodump backstory in large chunks. Convenient, but unnecessary and annoying. Some of the information so provided was interesting and relevant, while others appeared to have been included for humour only. Mostly I found these annoying as they took me away from the actual interesting story. The so-called humour left me flat in most cases. When a huge fungus swallows a series of strike teams, I’m not inclined to be amused by its colouration. The book was supposed to be humorous, I understand, but it never really struck the right tone to achieve it.    

In some instances (only occasionally) the author did a substantial amount of work building tension, made a huge and important revelation, and then did nothing with it. For instance, Myfanwy made an important discovery while interrogating a prisoner. It was implied, not spelled out (i.e. the reader had to do some basic math to work it out), and it was huge. I expected Myfanwy to report this to her superiors or, if she daren’t trust them with it, I expected her to act on it herself, or at least think about what it meant. Instead, at the opening of the next chapter – nothing. It was ignored so completely, I began to think I had misunderstood what I’d read. It was important enough it should have rated a mention, and if she had thought about it, probably she would have figured out who the traitor was earlier.

Myfanwy also appeared to have experienced a significant increase in her powers post-amnesia, and this was never satisfactorily explained. 

The editing could have used some work, too, with unnecessary instances of passive language and repetition which, while not quite enough to put me off, were more noticeable in light of some of the larger plot issues identified above, and only served to annoy me more. 

I did enjoy the story, enough that I will probably check out the author’s next work, but if you are one of those people who is exceptionally picky about the quality of the books you read (which usually I am these days) or otherwise have a huge TBR list, you might not want to take the time. 

I’d give this three stars – solid effort, but could have done with more polish and refinement. 

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