Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Review: The Rook

The Rook
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This missed five stars by, as Maxwell Smart would say, this much.

The opening chapters intrigued me, not enough to pay the inflated price that the publishers wanted for the ebook, but enough to get it from the library. It was the old amnesia-victim gambit, but done really well (and, as it turns out, with much better justification than usual). It's not the Bourne Identity, though. The main character knows who she is, or at least, who her body was, because the previous inhabitant has left her a note about it.

The book keeps on being original like that. It's a bit like Charles Stross's Laundry novels, except that the British civil service in Stross is much more realistic (this one is more like James Bond; for some reason, the British Government pays their supernatural secret agents extraordinarily well, even though they don't have the option of not working for them). The humour is wry and funny, which always gets me to excuse some flaws.

And there are some flaws, though not big ones. I would have expected someone who had a master's degree in medieval history, even one from Ohio State University, to know how to refer to a knight. (Always Sir Firstname, never Sir Surname, definitely not, as in this book, a random mixture of the two.) I probably wouldn't expect such a person to know that you can't have a geosynchronous satellite stationed over Britain (because it's not on the Equator), but nevertheless this is the case. And, much more importantly, I would have expected a student of history not to write a centuries-old organization in which women appear to have always been more or less equal, as if that was natural, inevitable and not worthy of comment. That's the kind of error a bad writer usually makes, and Daniel O'Malley is a very good writer.

The editing is professional. I mention this even though it's traditionally published, because these days that isn't a guarantee. Beyond that, though, the use of language is clever and original. The voice of the main character, and her odd sense of humour, is beautifully done. I also believed her as a woman, and not every male author can write a woman's viewpoint believably. Five stars for language.

The plot is... convoluted, and there's a lot of cruft layered on it. Some of the quoted letters from the main character's former identity are not actually related to the plot, and just become annoying interruptions. It could have done with trimming down a bit. Four stars for plot.

Although the main character, both of her, comes across wonderfully, most of the other characters are a bit thin. It seems like they're only there as adjuncts to the main character and to the plot. The book is very much from the main character's viewpoint, either first person (the letters) or very tight third person, though, and since she's not emotionally close to anyone this is understandable. It still means only four stars for character.

The setting I found strained my suspension of disbelief a little. Not only the well-paid secret agents (there are hints that the organization is self-funding, so perhaps that's believable), but the suppression of the extremely high body count with the flimsiest of cover stories, and the maintenance of secrecy even though practically every senior public servant in Britain apparently knows that there are people you call when things get weird. Also, the existence, for centuries, of a hidden organization that's loyal to Britain rather than to its rulers, and that (I'll repeat) has apparently always allowed women to hold its highest offices. My rule of fantasy is that the non-fantastic elements should be as plausible as possible, and I found some things about this one not all that plausible. Four stars for setting, and lucky to have them; it was nearly three, but the humour bonus saved the fourth one, just.

Overall, I enjoyed The Rook a lot, and I will definitely look for more in the series. Maybe one of the future volumes will make it to five stars.

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