'The Rook' Is 'Downton Abbey' With Superpowers [Book Review]

I hesitate to say it outright like this, but The Rook– the debut novel from Daniel O’Malley, which hits bookstores this week – is Harry Potter meets The X-Men for adults, with a dash of dry humor for good measure. The reason I hesitate to say that is that unlike what that statement implies, The Rook is a wholly refreshing, original piece of work that recalls many, many other previous fantasy universes while creating one of its own that will be worth revisiting again and again.

Here’s the simple setup of the book: a woman opens her eyes to find herself bruised and bloody, standing in the rain, with dead bodies all around her wearing latex gloves. On the run and with no memory, she finds two letters in her pocket, addressed to – and written by – herself. Turns out, she knew she would lose her memory, and made proper preparations to help her “new” self come to grips with the life she’s entering.

That’s because Myfawny (pronounced “Mif-fawn-ee”) Thomas, her ridiculous, only in books first name, was a Rook in the Chequy (pronounced “Check-eh”), a secret organization dedicated to protecting the United Kingdom, and the world, from supernatural threats. Oh, and also? She has her own powers, to completely take control of a person’s body merely by touching them.

In fact, nearly fifty percent of the Chequy has X-Men like powers, from the ability to exude deadly gases through their skin, to Myfawny’s fellow Rook, who is actually one brain in four bodies. All the powered members of the Chequy – the ones who are in charge – learned to use their abilities at a school called The Estate, before moving into Britain protection mode.

Well, except the new Myfawny, who is bold where her predecessor was meek, able to use the full extent of her powers, where before she was scared to even use them a little bit, and without any knowledge of protocol or history, where the old Myfawny was basically bookworm supreme. There’s a number of interesting conceits about memory here, that truly do make the reader wonder how much of your memory is what makes you who you are.

However, that’s not really what O’Malley is interested in; and then I occasionally lamented while reading the novel that there isn’t more exploration of the memory loss – New Myfawny, thanks to overly prepared notes and letters from Old Myfawny, is extremely well prepared for her new life – I am thankful about where he does turn his pen. It’s area the Australian desk clerk knows very well, and what makes The Rook such a unique read: it’s all about the administrators.

You know how in Harry Potter, the students go on adventures, and the teachers sometimes get involved or try to stop them? The Rook is about the people back the desks, rolling their eyes because they now have to file a mound of paperwork. With The X-Men, the same thing: sure you have to train a new generation of mutants, but how are you going to secure the funding if you don’t have your financial people making sure the books are balanced?

Okay, sure, there’s plenty of action and intrigue in the book. Myfawny has to discover who wiped her memory (she knows there’s a traitor in the Chequy), as well as battling an evil from the organizations past called The Grafters, also know as Belgain Flesh Alchemists. It’s as deliberately gross as that sounds, too, and O’Malley delights in coming up with more and more disgusting ways to use the human body.

But the majority of the book is spent with Myfawny piloting the equally dangerous waters of diplomacy, as we learn the history and structure of this new world. Like I said before, this cribs liberally from an innumerable amount of fantasy books, comics, and TV shows. But like Harry Potter before it, its what the author does with the elements, and how he mixes them together in new and satisfying ways that makes the book work so well.

There’s also O’Malley’s sense of humor, which is present throughout. I found myself guffawing loudly throughout reading: a climactic encounter with an arch-villain is played as much for laughs through the contrast of diplomacy and insanity as it is for menace. In fact, the whole novel is so drily witty, its tough for O’Malley to build a proper sense of menace for the villains. The last hundred pages or so, which wrap up the book nicely while – thankfully – leaving an opening for more in a potential series, are almost exclusively a comedy of manners, rather than a climactic battle.

Again, O’Malley has all that, its just not where his focus lies… The Rook is more Downton Abbey with superpowers, than the latest comics mega crossover. And I, for one, am thankful for that. It’s refreshing and exciting to read about a new fantasy universe that doesn’t take itself so deathly serious you want to claw your eyes out at the end. And The Rook is easily translatable into TV, movies, or comic books, but it feels like, and reads like a book, not a pitch for something else.

So yes: if you like Harry Potter, Buffy, X-Men, or any other assorted series that mix humor and the supernatural, you’ll probably love The Rook. But if you’ve never gotten into those series before, and instead spend your time filing papers at your desk job, secretly wishing that what you were doing was saving the world, rather than just going in a filing cabinet to be forgotten, The Rook is for you, too. Here’s hoping O’Malley is already working on the sequel.

The Rook will be in bookstores on January 11th, 2012 from Little, Brown and Company.

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