Saturday 19 November 2016

The Rook, and Stiletto, by Daniel O'Malley

Present-day London is the base for a centuries-old secret intelligence organisation, headed by people with a range of supernatural abilities, which supports the government in various ways including suppressing any uncontrolled supernatural occurrences.  These elements of contemporary urban fantasy in The Rook are not entirely original, you may think, and you'd be right. But the quality of a story lies in how the plot is handled, and this one is done very well.

A young woman gains consciousness and realises that she is standing in a park in the pouring rain, badly beaten and surrounded by dead bodies. She also realises that she has no memories at all, and has no idea who she is. She soon finds information, most particularly letters in her pocket from Myfanwy Alice Thomas, the first starting:  "Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine."

Following an information trail left by the letter-writer, the new Myfanwy gradually realises that she has some remarkable powers and that the previous occupant of her body was a senior officer (a Rook – they like chess names) in the Checquy, the aforementioned secret intelligence organisation. The old Myfanwy had received occult advanced warning about what was going to happen to her, which was the result of an attack by an unknown senior person in the organisation, so had prepared for her successor. New Myfanwy, with the help of the copious guidance notes left by her body's previous owner, has to convince the Checquy hierarchy that she is who she appears to be, while trying to work out who had attacked her. It doesn't help that her personality is very different from the shy original, being far more assertive. Or that she is constantly under pressure to deal with a range of weird emergencies, leaving her with little time to address the threat to herself.

The Rook is a fun mystery/adventure/crime thriller with horror elements which I was reluctant to put down and eager to get back to – something that happens too rarely these days. New Myfanwy is a resourceful  and likeable character and this reader was cheering her on from beginning to end. The only niggle which bothered me was, as usual, something rather more mundane than super-powers and vampires: I couldn’t help wondering how, if the original Myfanwy’s memories and personality were completely wiped, a functioning human being with a fully-formed – and very different – personality was left in her place; where did she some from? Our personalities are to a great extent the sum total of our experiences and memories, after all. With those all wiped, what would be left? Maybe this will be addressed in the sequel, Stiletto, which was released recently and is at the top of my “to buy” list.


Stiletto continues the story, with some significant differences: most noticeably, while retaining an important role, Myfanwy no longer provides the viewpoint. Instead, this is shared between two contrasting characters: Felicity Clements, a junior Pawn soldier of the Checquy, and Odette Leliefeld, a young medical specialist of a rival European secret organisation, the Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen, better known to the Checquy as the Grafters. The Grafters are fundamentally different from the Checquy in that they are not born with any special abilities but have mastered medical science to a phenomenal degree, using their skills to build a range of enhancements into their bodies.

We learned towards the end of The Rook that a deadly emnity had existed between the two organisations for centuries, following a brief, devastating war between them. But a tentative peace agreement had been reached (largely due to Myfanwy's involvement); this is where Stiletto begins, and it remains the main plot thread throughout. Odette is part of the Grafter delegation to peace talks in London and a reluctant Felicity is assigned to her as a bodyguard. The pair do not initially get on, but contribute their different skills in a series of crises, most particularly concerning an unknown third party which seems to be focused on destroying the peace agreement, the resolution of which forms the climax of the story.

Like the first volume, Stiletto is an intriguing page-turner with likeable characters and is written with sardonic humour – sometimes, perhaps, a little too much of it. The writing also shows signs of bloat, with time taken out for long biographies and descriptive passages, which slows the pace in parts of the story. Finally, for my taste the various monsters that have to be dealt with are somewhat extreme, although I have no doubt that other readers will enjoy this. Oh, and there is still no explanation for the arrival of Myfanwy's strong new personality, nor any further mention of the devastating "weapon of mass destruction" she deploys twice at the start of The Rook. Despite this, Stiletto is a worthy sequel which maintained my interest throughout.

Overall, these two novels are a significant addition to contemporary urban fantasy and I will be looking out for any sequels.