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The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

About halfway through The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (Little, Brown and Company, 2012), I began wondering whether I needed to review my definitions of genres (again). Publishers, these days, seem intent on confusing readers by blurring the lines between the previously chalk and cheese. In the good old days, there would be a spaceship on the jacket, hopefully with a nubile maiden struggling in the grasp of something with tentacles to tell us this was SF, while the jacket with some old guy sporting a long beard, wearing a tattered old cloak and leaning on a staff would be high fantasy, and never the twain should meet. Now we get books like this with deeply bland jackets and ambiguous content. So, keeping things simple, let’s define science fiction as any story that depends on technology we don’t have available to us now, while in fantasy, the causes of events are supernatural, i.e. they don’t depend on the normal physical laws of nature.

It’s at this point you’re looking exasperated because of the jacket. You’re pointing at the words, “On Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service”. But look at the coat of arms. Yes, there’s something with tentacles which could be Cthulhu or an alien in search of something nubile to nibble on for lunch, but it’s the presence of the rabbit that should be troubling you. What is this? Attack of the killer bunnies? Now I concede many of those on the side of righteousness who fight for Britain and America have supernatural powers. But the enemy and their minions (keeping the vocabulary in the fantasy mode for now) depend almost exclusively on technology to force evolution in unexpected directions, reconstruct the flesh for different situations, embed bits of kit for offence and defence, and generally manipulate the genes for effect. In other words, they are, for the most part, mad scientists or evil geniuses, out to rule the world — think Pinky and the Brain but a touch more malevolent. Did I mention this book has a nice sense of humour? Well, it made me smile and that makes it supernaturally powerful.

Daniel O'Malley — still curly after all these years

So Myfanwy Thomas, our heroine, opens her eyes and finds she doesn’t know who she is. Fortunately, before this amnesiac condition overwhelmed her, she had the foresight to write herself lots of letters and notes explaining how to be her. All the new her has to do is keep reading and, hopefully sooner rather than later, she’ll know how to be the old her. There are just two problems: someone or something is trying to kill her no matter which her she is, and it’s quickly apparent to those around her that she’s not the girl she used to be. It’s enough to give anyone a bad hair day, not that anyone would notice given how preternaturally shy she used to be. Anyway, by the time she’s finished trying to pretend she’s someone she’s not, she’s discovered she has mildly impressive supernatural powers and is not someone to be trifled with. Indeed, it turns out she’s one of two rooks. Note the clever chess labelling system in operation, except you get not less than four rooks for the price of one on the other side of the board. This is confusing until you get used to the idea of one mind living simultaneously in four bodies. A N Wilson once wrote a book titled, My Name is Legion, followed by Zelazny with a collection and Lester del Rey with a short story (see there are lots of them) and this is just someone who gets about a lot. Then there’s the bishop who’s a vampire and a skinless guy in a tank of slime (he’s doesn’t get out much) — no wait, he’s one of the bad guys. . . By now you understand this has a cast of tens and it’s all good clean fun (apart from the guy in the tank of slime) and the boy who goes in for deep kissing and. . . Well, most of it is suitable for readers of ordinary sensibilities who like the idea of watching an author take every known variety of human lifeform and mix them together in different combinations with the occasional supernatural and advanced human-plant hybrid for company.

By the time you get to the end, you’ve worked out who the mole is (difficult without the velvety fur and extreme shortsightedness as clues), and seen our rook defend the castle and the rest of the kingdom from a fate worse than domination by the Belgians (not quite death by chocolate). This leaves things nicely set up for more adventures. Frankly, I hope there are legions of them. Getting to the heart of things, The Rook is a sensational first novel whether you want to see it as science fantasy (SF) or supernatural fun (SF). Daniel O’Malley is definitely a name to watch out for in the future (or from now on if you’d rather not wait).

The Rook won the 2012 Aurealis Award for Best Novel.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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