Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Pieces In The Game

The Rook is Daniel O'Malley's debut novel and he sets out his stall out early.  “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” is the opening statement from O’Malley’s protagonist, Myfanwy Thomas (a name she incorrectly and deliberately pronounces Miff-un-wee).  She wakes up holding the letter addressed to herself in a London park surrounded by dead bodies – all wearing latex gloves and no memory whatsoever.  Thus, she – and we, the reader – must follow the trail of instructions left by Myfanwy’s predecessor to discover her lost identity and uncover the individual responsible for leaving her in this state.

Soon enough, O’Malley segues from the woman who finds herself shivering in the rain to the reveal that Myfanwy is in fact a Rook, a high-level operative in a secret governmental agency known as the Checquy, who protect the world from known supernatural threats.  Unfortunately, there is a mole within the agency and this unknown individual wants Myfanwy dead.  So far, so compelling - and a pretty intriguing premise from which to spin what subsequently becomes a complex dual-tone/personality narrative from both Myfanwy and her previous personality.

As an aside, given Myfanwy engages in a form of intellectual play-by-play with her antagonist throughout the course of the narrative and fact that “the game” is even referred to specifically towards the conclusion of the novel, the title of the novel is arguably also a suitably clever way for the author to mirror its overriding theme and reinforce the extent of the author’s knowledge of the text intended to be provided to the reader.

The concept of a “supernatural spy novel” forms a nice twist upon the burgeoning spec fic genre and one which is rich with opportunities to indulge in.  This is James Bond meets Doctor Who/Torchwood, with an additional sinister element added in by virtue of Myfanwy’s amnesiac status at the outset (and thus also a main protagonist reminiscent of Ludlum’s Jason Bourne in this respect). 

The concept of an amnesiac narrator also serves to ensure O’Malley’s debut breaks new ground from previous works within the subject area, such as Tregillis’s alternate history novel, Bitter Seeds, for one, and thus stands out from the crowd.  Further, by throwing elements of action, sci-fi, thriller, mystery and fantasy into the melting pot, O’Malley provides his audience with a somewhat subversive narrative which defies categorisation within purely simplistic terms and ultimately making it a more compelling read as a result.  Not only this but, cleverly, by providing his reader with this kind of set up, both reader and main protagonist maintain the same pace within their fact finding mission and encounter the supernatural world into which we are thrust from the same perspective, with a fresh pair of eyes – both down the rabbit hole together, as it were.  As such, O’Malley’s premise is afforded additional impact.    

Whilst it is true to say that there are a number of “familiar” elements present within O’Malley’s narrative – namely, a boarding school involving young “pupils” with differing “powers” they are encouraged to harness, in addition to the aforementioned amnesiac heroine (as opposed to hero) – it is also correct that they are given a decided twist so as to ensure they fit O’Malley’s purposes – thus, no superhuman strength or x-ray vision per se or overt comparison to X-Men applicable.  Instead, we see fortune telling ducks and individuals capable of exuding neuro-chemicals, for example; thus, more of a nod in the genetic mutant direction, as opposed to treading an already familiar path, in the strictest sense.  Added together, these elements remain fresh enough to ensure the plot is free to stand on its own merits, as opposed to feeling borrowed or weighed down by an inevitable sense of cliché.

Myfanwy herself is also arguably a character capable of definition within the somewhat familiar tropes of the speculative genre.  Whilst she may not be a Harry Potter or Buffy style “chosen one”, she is on one level an individual struggling to come to terms with the powers she knows herself to possess – and, indeed, choose whether to exercise them or not. 

The manner in which O’Malley chooses to address this dilemma is an interesting one, with Myfanwy’s predecessor and Myfanwy herself ultimately coming to differing decisions as to how to act.  Again, then, the narrative refuses to be pinned down in simplistic terms.  Here, O’Malley, whether by deliberate design or otherwise, poses an interesting question; ostensibly a slightly less distinct aspect of the age old “nature versus” nurture issue.  Effectively, what extent can we consider Myfanwy to be a product of her previous experiences in terms of reaction and is her behaviour post-amnesia the result of being freed from these and thus reacting without forethought or preconception?  Does this allow her to fulfil her supernatural potential at a more advanced level, although it previously lay dormant within the body which both versions of Myfanwy inhabit at differing stages?  Given the lack of overt answer within the print on the page, this may well be something O’Malley intends for the reader to reach a decision upon for themselves.   

This issue aside, O’Malley’s narrative is not one which takes itself too seriously – nor should it.  By throwing itself wholeheartedly into a plot which is resplendent with spores and slime, we are afforded the opportunity to enjoy a book which aims predominantly to entertain.  Quite simply, we are intended to have some fun; this being something O’Malley seems to have had whilst building his secret society and its surrounding environs.  With this in mind, we see power supplies cut to Liverpool to prevent a media broadcast concerning ghost animals within the business district and suggestions concerning an individual capable of secreting toxins through her fingertips. 

Whilst this might come across under a different author as overblown, O’Malley keeps us on side by ensuring his tongue remains firmly in cheek during these events and exploits the comic potential of his “fantastical” plotline.  This is aided in no small part by the irreverent voice of his main protagonist, Myfanwy, who makes no secret of her opinions in the face of the events she is forced to play a part in whilst she attempts to uncover her adversary.      

Pleasingly, the secret society agency itself, the Checquy, is realised in a suitable level of detail during the course of the narrative via numerous letters addressed from Myfanwy’s predecessor to herself (“Dear You”), even down to the monarchy-reminiscent crest adorning the black and white cover to the novel.  We also gain a sense of the bureaucratic manner in which any such organisation might be forced to operate and the levels of seniority and power play envisaged by the chess playing piece designations for which its members are named during the course of the discussions by its members with one another.  Thus, O’Malley maintains a delicate balance between realism in his depiction of the supernatural branch of the secret service versus the field work his agents are required to enter into when facing down threats.  Not only are there super-powered foes to face down, there’s a supreme amount of paperwork involved in the process too!
Further, we are introduced to the American Bishop, Shantay, expanding our national horizons.  Thus, we gain an impression as to the potential scale of the global supernatural network and O’Malley provides himself with a larger backdrop against which he can stage his narrative in the event of a future sequel.

The level of description, on geographic levels both domestic and international, ensures not only that the supernatural spy “world” of the Checquy is sufficiently well established to convince the reader of its potential plausibility but also that we are provided with the necessary clues for the purposes of the “mystery” element of the narrative which will keep the reader engaged in the quest towards discovery of the truth.  Thus, O’Malley serves to achieve two aims via a singular means.

Thankfully, O’Malley ensures the “mystery” is suitably resolved prior to the debut’s conclusion, as opposed to leaving things hanging for a second or third instalment – also a relief in light of the apparently increasing trend within genre fiction towards “story by instalments” and the prevalence of the “novel via trilogy” within fiction generally.    

Despite the eventual "reveal" of the identity of Myfanwy's nemesis within The Rook, however, matters are sill left suitably open at the conclusion that a return to the world of the Checquy and the Rookery is a distinct possibility.  I understand the author is working on a further instalment and I suspect there may already be a ready market for it on the basis of his opening gambit into the urban fantasy market.

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