When a book starts with a character waking up in a public park with no memory of one’s own identity, and surrounded by corpses wearing latex gloves, you know the authorial promise underlying such a story is that of a thrilling adventure and a journey of discovery, and that’s what’s in store for Myfanwy Thomas as she comes to under a torrential rain, with only a letter in her pocket working as an anchor to what used to be her life.
Dazed and terrified, Myfanwy follows the instructions in the letter – a missive penned by her old self who knew that her memory would be wiped and took every step to insure that her newborn persona possessed all the elements to carry on as best as she could. Myfanwy Thomas is – or rather was – a member of the Checquy, a British secret organization that for centuries has collected and trained as operatives all the people who showed supernatural abilities, employing them against any equally supernatural threat against the country.
A timid, unassuming person, Myfanwy however rose to the position of Rook in the Checquy thanks to her superior administrative abilities, which acted as compensation for her reluctance to employ her power of controlling other people’s bodies through her mind. For some reason, though, someone in the Checquy choose to mind-wipe her, so that Myfanwy – being forewarned by several sources gifted with precognition – decided to leave to her “successor” a thick file of information about her past life and her work, so that the new Myfanwy could step into the old one’s life and even try to uncover the identity and motives of the person who harmed her in such a way.
As a premise, this does sound quite intriguing, and for the initial chapters the story did prove fascinating, provided that I exerted some light suspension of disbelief, but after a while my objections started piling up in such a way that like the proverbial elephant in the room I could not ignore them anymore, and I had to acknowledge the fact that the execution of this story ended up ruining my enjoyment of it. The uneven pace, the improbable characterization and the overall mood – that seemed to hover uncertainly between suspenseful drama and snarky humor – all added up to a huge disappointment that would have made me stop reading there and then if I had not held to the slender thread of curiosity that required I learn how this convoluted scheme would be resolved.
First problem: the pacing. The foretold wiping of her memory allows old-Myfanwy to leave extensive notes for new-Myfanwy so she can have enough elements to more or less safely navigate through her life, and in the beginning this narrative choice looked like an interesting way of detailing some necessary background. That is, until it got completely out of hand: every time a situation warrants information that new-Myfanwy does not possess, a document in the huge purple binder that old-Myfanwy left her comes to the rescue, listing in often excruciating detail some past event or the personal data on Checquy officers she needs to work with. When that happens in the middle of a dramatic episode, the change in narrative speed feels jarring and the information – as useful as it might be – just like an obstacle to be overcome before going back to the heat of the moment. Repeat this instance a sufficient number of times, and what used to be simply upsetting becomes monumentally annoying, especially since the level of detail provided is so burdened with useless trivia that the temptation of skipping ahead to the real meat of the story becomes irresistible. Too much of a good, useful thing is not necessarily a good thing, and in this instance the author seemed to forget – or ignore – the fact that overloading the readers with a plethora of details would prove distracting, or worse. And then there is one question that kept nagging at me: the infamous purple binder in which old-Myfanwy crammed her previous life is a prominent feature in the story, to the point that new-Myfanwy is always carrying it around and scanning it, even in the presence of other people, which might have raised some eyebrows or given away her little problem with amnesia – and yet it never happens, which to me seems improbable at best.
Problem number two: characterization. After the initial shock of being “born” again with no memory of self, Myfanwy comes across as something of a Mary Sue: armed only with the information in the letter left by her predecessor, she proceeds to step into old-Myfanwy’s shoes with apparent little or no difficulty. What’s more, while her previous incarnation was a timid, self-effacing creature that garnered little respect from her peers, this new woman is decisive, assertive and quite proactive, especially where her job is concerned: she can make quick, effective decisions on the direst of situations and she has no qualms about employing her supernatural powers with a strength no one suspected she possessed or felt the desire to apply – and yet no one even bats an eyelash or comments on such amazing personality changes, which sounds eminently strange for anyone, let alone a secret organization where layered screenings and security measures against enemy infiltration abound. On the other hand, the new Myfanwy (just like the old one) has problems with social interactions, so that when faced with official meetings she reverts back to her awkward girl persona who worries more about the state of her hair or the complexities of a daring dress than about the current problem, which led me to wonder whether it was a matter of inconsistent characterization or the usual glitch that occurs when a male author writes from a female perspective. Or maybe it’s just snarky old me…
And finally, the overall mood: more than once, while reading The Rook, I was reminded of one of my main contentions with Andy Weir’s The Martian, which was the light tone that often seemed inappropriate when applied to the situation being described. Here I encountered the same problem, as if the author were undecided whether to keep this story in a playful vein or stress the dramatic side of it, which consists of scary manifestations that end in a high number of casualties, when not dealing with the political maneuvering inside the Checquy, which appears no less vicious than an enemy’s attack. This uncertainty about what I was reading, which could be seen as either a dark thriller with fantasy elements or a humorous take on the genre, certainly did not help in my assessment of this story, or my enjoyment of it, and the last pages, plagued by a lot of convoluted explanations and the mandatory Evil Guy Gloating Before Killing the Heroine sounded the… death knell for this story, and I stopped reading before reaching the end, because I could not bear to go on anymore – which is a pity since the premise had all the numbers to result into a compelling book.