Friday, January 18, 2013

JD's Take: The Rook (Daniel O'Malley)

There is, I am sure you are aware, a sub-sub-genre of books that amount to "magic secret agents". These are modern fantasy novels where the protagonist works for a government agency that Knows Things Beyond Mortal Ken and his or her job is to be James Bond except against ghosts instead of communists. Unless they are ghost communists.

This is that, but done really well.

There is no ultra-competent secret agent with a mystical Q department at the core of this novel, there is a baffled pencil-pusher[0] with second-hand memories, a binder full of clues, and a desire to survive the next few weeks. Where other novels would have an over-sexed debonaire or femme fatalle, O'Malley gets by quite nicely with a plain looking mouse of a woman, hesitant in manner and vaguely baffled by the larger than life people she is surrounded by. When you might expect a car chase or a blazing magical gunfight, you instead get tension and ambiguity and plots. I suppose that, on consideration, there is certainly cool magic, and super powers, and action, and sex and explosions. It is, after all, a magic secret agency, but the scenes that stuck with me the most take place in corporate offices and cozy living rooms. The trappings of adventure seem to happen around the character, even when they are happening to her.

The two main characters (who happen to be played by the same person) are well written and engaging and fun and sad and scared and brave and smart. My favorite character in the book is quite thoroughly dead for the entire work. The other characters aren't as good, but they don't really need to be, and they are interesting enough. The world is well thought out for this sort of premise, and I enjoyed learning more about it.

Overall, this was a well written book that is head and shoulders above its nominal peers. Recommended for sure.

[0] In fairness, she is an ultra-competent paper pusher.

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