The body you are wearing used to be mine.
Thus begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas finds in her pocket when she opens her eyes in the pouring rain one London night, dead bodies wearing latex gloves all around her, and no idea whatsoever of who she is. The letter contains a few urgent instructions and details (including her name), ID, and credit and ATM cards, so Myfanwy can take her bruised and battered body to a hotel for the night. (She has no memory of getting those injuries.) In the morning she must make a choice: escape and live anonymously with a pleasant amount of wealth under the name Anne Ryan, or go back to this other person’s astonishing life so she can find out who betrayed her and tried to kill her. Just as she’s reaching for Anne Ryan’s identification, a second attack in the bank vault — and its strange outcome — change her mind. She will be Myfanwy Thomas as long as it takes to understand what has happened here.
The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley, is a puzzle based on Myfanwy’s total amnesia, a little like The Bourne Identity. The original Myfanwy Thomas received several warnings from psychics (including an oracular duck) that she was going to be betrayed and would lose her memory, so she prepared for this outcome, leaving her successor dozens of letters explaining her life and enabling her to put the pieces together. The new Myfanwy is thus racing against time to settle into this life and find out who the traitor is so that she won’t be betrayed again and this time murdered. And what a life it is!
Myfanwy discovers that her position is a Rook in the Chequy, a secret organization that has existed for centuries to serve the British Isles as a protection against the supernatural. This organization is very hierarchical and based (as you can probably tell) on a chessboard, with a Lord and Lady, two Bishops, two Chevaliers, two Rooks, and a number of Pawns. The Chequy has the right to take “gifted” children from their homes to a training ground called the Estate, where they are crafted into well-rounded warriors who can put their powers to use. (This is a bit X-Men in flavor.) Anyone in the Court must have these special powers: Lady Farrier, for instance, can see other people’s dreams; Bishop Alrich is a vampire. And Myfanwy? She has the ability to control other people’s nervous systems: she can do anything from locking another person’s joints, to blinding or incapacitating them, to killing them.
Myfanwy does her best to drop back into a life she knows nothing about without making any mistakes or raising any eyebrows. And in fact, thanks to her superb assistant, Ingrid, and the many letters from the Former Myfanwy, she does remarkably well. She even finds that she likes the job, can be assertive, and has a head for fieldwork that the Former Myfanwy didn’t. But the pressure mounts as she begins to narrow down the number of people who could be out to kill her, and as a deadly danger begins to rise from the outside as well: the Grafters, an organization similar to the Chequy but who install powers through surgery rather than taking them from the natural population.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s got some wonderful heroines in it — both Myfanwys have terrific and distinct personalities, and he pulls it off flawlessly. The lesser characters are also very enjoyable. I especially liked Myfanwy’s American counterpart, Shantay, who can grow armor. The book is frequently very witty, with little side-glances to other fantasy worlds or strange happenings that made me chuckle. For instance, the American version of the Chequy is called the Croatoan. And then there was this:
“If you want to switch jobs, you can come over here right now and balance the extermination budget in London while (shuffling through papers) figuring out why the hell a two-door wardrobe in the spare room of a country house is considered to be a matter of national concern!”
There are a lot of action set pieces, and O’Malley never lets the plot stop rolling along. Could the book, at nearly 500 pages, have been shorter? Yes, yes it could. I think 500 pages for a fantasy romp, even one with a good plot, is a lot, and could have been tightened by easily 100-150 pages (and I have some specific suggestions.) But still! I enjoyed the entire thing. And! I just happened to pick this up the very month the sequel, Stiletto, is coming out! Lucky me! And lucky you, if you read this: it’s pure fun, perfect for the summer.