The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The RookPublished: January 11th 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre(s): Fantasy, Spy Thriller, Comedy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 486 pages

When the heroine of The Rook wakes up, she finds herself standing in a park in the pouring rain, surrounded by dead bodies and with no memory of her life or the events that led her to her current predicament. Luckily, the former occupant of her body, one Myfawnwy (pronounced “Miffany”) Thomas, was both meticulous and forewarned, and so she prepared for every eventuality by leaving two letters in the coat our heroine is wearing.

The first starts as follows: “The body you are wearing used to be mine.” Much of the novel unfolds as a one-sided conversation between the woman Myfawnwy used to be and the one she becomes after losing her memory. For simplicity’s sake, O’Malley refers to the latter as Myfawnwy and the former as Thomas.

Thomas lays out two options for Myfawnwy to follow: she can either assume a fake identity and hide from whoever is trying to kill her, or she can work to fit herself back into the role and identity of her “predecessor” and try to solve the mystery of her attack. Naturally, she chooses the second option, or else the novel would have wrapped up very quickly.

It turns out that Thomas is a high-level bureaucrat in a secret organization called the Checquy which devotes itself to controlling and covering up supernatural threats to the UK. She also has powers of her own, as do all upper-level members of the organization. Myfawnwy discovers those powers inadvertently when she is attacked a second time and uses them to knock out several more people at once. However, as she reads more into Thomas’ history, it becomes clear that she never quite lived up to her potential. Even though she could have been powerful, she preferred desk work to field work, and had a reputation for shyness.

The conceit of an amnesiac main character is an excellent way of introducing readers to the strange world of the Checquy. Myfawnwy’s coworkers run the gamut from her fairly normal corporate secretary to an entity called Gestalt who controls four bodies with one mind. O’Malley populates this world with strange and occasionally horrible details that live in uncomfortable proximity to each other.

Myfawnwy is also a fantastic character, frequently hilarious and always likable as she bullshits her way through departmental meetings and unexpected field work. The perspective bounces back and forth between Myfawnwy’s modern-day adventures and Thomas’ letters, which fill in backstory and handle a lot of the world-building. Myfawnwy is also surrounded by great characters in the present day, from her too-beautiful American counterpart who becomes a good friend, to the disgustingly unhinged villain who confronts her later in the book.

The Rook is commonly compared to a lot of other authors and books, but it’s definitely more than the sum of its influences. The best description I could come up with when summarizing the book for a friend was that it’s a bit like The Bourne Identity with Terry Pratchett’s sense of humor. if you’ve ever read anything by Tom Holt, I think his work is a fair comparison; he also enjoys mashing up mundane things like accounting with werewolves and vampires.

The one criticism I would make of the book is that Thomas’ letters consist almost entirely of infodumps. It makes sense for the character, and O’Malley mostly gets away with it, but I do wish the balance leaned more towards Myfawnwy learning about her world through footwork rather than reading those letters.

In any case, I loved the book, and am very excited that O’Malley plans on writing more books in the same universe. The Rook wraps of Myfawnwy’s story pretty neatly, so my guess is that future books might focus on other characters, but if he does choose to revisit this character at a later point in her life, I won’t complain.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Every Day by David Levithan

Published: August 28th, 2012
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 336 pages

Note: The narrator of Every Day is essentially genderless, but for simplicity’s sake I use male pronouns throughout this review.

David Levithan is an interesting standout in the young adult / fiction world. He seems more than willing to experiment with storytelling forms; his previous book, The Lover’s Dictionary, chronicled the ups and downs of a relationship through alternately hilarious and painful entries in a dictionary. His new book, Every Day, is more traditional in form, but still full of the same thrillingly out-there ideas that I loved about his previous work.

Every Day’s premise is simple but striking; what if you woke up every day in a new body and a new place? Some essence of your self – your soul, some ineffable store of memory – survives the jump from body to body, which gives you continuity of identity, but you also have access to the memories of your “host” so that you can pass unnoticed in their life. How would it feel to look out from different eyes every day, experiencing the world from an infinite number of perspectives? More importantly, what would happen if, one day, you fell in love… and couldn’t let go?

A, the narrator of Levithan’s story, wakes up one morning in the body of Justin, a sullen teenage boy who doesn’t take care of himself, doesn’t get along well with his parents and mistreats his girlfriend. A usually tries not to interfere with the lives of his hosts – who seem to match the age he would be if he lived normally – but something about Justin’s relationship with his girlfriend, Rhiannon, makes him decide to try and improve her day. They skip school and go to the beach… and A falls in love. After that, A spends each successive day trying to find Rhiannon, working to get to know her and eventually revealing his body-jumping secret.

Levithan plays with some fascinating philosophical concepts throughout. Once A reveals his identity to Rhiannon, the major question becomes: how exactly do you have a relationship with someone who isn’t in the same body twice? A, who grew up unsurprisingly open-minded after experiencing life through the eyes of every possible type of person, feels like there shouldn’t be anything keeping them apart, but Rhiannon isn’t quite so ready to live outside the norms. For example, A notices that she isn’t quite as receptive when he is in the body of a girl or someone who isn’t traditionally attractive. Late in the book, the question arises of what it would mean if A and Rhiannon had sex in one of his host bodies, since it has been made clear that the hosts do remember vague details of their lives the next day. All of these complications make A’s story poignantly tragic, and the romance compellingly star-crossed.

A’s experiences vary wildly from day to day. One particularly harrowing experience involves a day spent in the body of a habitual drug user going through withdrawal; another centers on a girl who is planning to commit suicide. A is almost always understanding and open-minded about the lives of the people he inhabits, although he does admit early on that he doesn’t necessarily like everyone whose life he takes over. The only real false note in the book comes on a day when A inhabits the body of an extremely overweight boy. A refers to him as “the emotional equivalent of a burp” and it seems strangely judgmental by comparison.

The author also introduces a subplot about a boy named Nathan who gets in trouble with his parents after A controls his life one night. When Nathan comes home after curfew, he blames his behavior on demonic possession. Eventually the story gets picked up by the national news and a shady evangelical preacher starts asking more of the “possessed” to come forward. Nathan remembers enough about his experience to get in touch with A through his secret email account, and tries to convince A to reveal his true nature. Although this storyline does add some tension to the mix, I felt like the book didn’t necessarily need it. Every Day largely focuses on the romance between A and Rhiannon, so when a late reveal implies that the story might slip into thriller territory or start exploring explanations for the body-jumping mythology, it doesn’t quite fit. Luckily Levithan avoids straying too far down that path.

That isn’t to say I wouldn’t be curious to know more about the cause of A’s body-jumping experiences, and the book definitely ends on a note that would leave Levithan wide open to write a sequel if he chose to. I’d definitely read it, but I imagine it would need to be a very different book, simply because it would only diminish this book to try and repeat the romantic storyline.

All in all, I highly recommend Every Day. It’s a quick read full of powerful emotional moments and thought-provoking ideas, and I definitely look forward to seeing what Levithan comes up with next.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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