Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Dear You, I'm not bipolar, I've just had a bipolar life foisted upon me."

4 out of 5 stars

I liked this book, I really did. After all, the story is completely unique and one of the most ingenious I've read (and this is coming from someone who's stuffed herself with the likes of Christopher Moore, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett). In fact, I'm sure Daniel O'Malley has probably stuffed himself with a couple of these authors as well judging by some of the humor and situations I encountered within the novel.

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London garden in the pouring rain surrounded by a ring of unconscious bodies, all wearing latex gloves. Oh, and she has no memory. In her pocket is a letter from the body's previous occupant which begins with the words “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” Guided by further letters written by the previous Myfanwy, Myfanwy #2 discovers she's an operative, a Rook, in a secret government agency dedicated to protecting the country from supernatural threats of all shapes and sizes, and that someone in that agency is trying to kill her (or, rather, Myfanwy #1). Seeing as every high-level operative possess a supernatural power and they along with all other members of the agency, known as the Checquey, are highly trained in methods of subterfuge and defensive arts, Myfanwy has her work cut out for her. Relying on the information provided by the first Myfanwy, Myfanwy #2 explores her new job and life, not to mention her own, very powerful supernatural power, and discovers there's more afoot than either Myfanwy could've imagined.

Yet with the many story elements in the novel and the undeniably creative plot, there's something which made the whole thing miss out on being a genius-level piece of work by a hair's breadth. Mostly because of Myfanwy #2. This may sound weird coming from an American, but Myfanwy did not strike me as being particularly British. She came off like an American ex-pat who was now working in London.  Yes, Myfanwy the second's personality is different from Myfanwy the first's:  Myfanway #1 was pathologically shy, a wallflower, deferential and demure in her uniform of black, white, and grey clothing which allowed her to disappear in a crowd.  The new Myfanwy, though retaining many of her predecessors quirks, was a bit more brash and outspoken, a bit more assertive and willing to try new things.  I get that.  But she can still be those things within the framework of a British character, yet not once did I get a sense of "Stiff upper lip, mind the gap, keep calm and carry on" British-ness.  Not to mention her behavior, her speech patterns, and occasionally her humor made her seem incredibly juvenile and underdeveloped at times.  Not that there aren't Brits who behave in a juvenile manner (there are and I've met them), but for the character O'Malley was trying to create, those mannerisms were inconsistent.  Honestly, the effect was rather jarring at times. Secondly, Myfanwy the first provided a purple binder filled with information about her life, the Checquey, the operatives, basically every single aspect of her universe to assist Myfanwy the second in adapting to her new life. Every time Myfanwy #2 runs into something, she pulls out that purple binder so she (and, by extension, the reader) can figure out exactly what she's dealing with. That's all well and good, and certainly prevents any missteps on Myfanwy's part, allowing her to pick up her predecessor's life with nary a stumble; not to mention the gimmick gives O'Malley an easy way to introduce back story. However, she often pulled out this binder in the company of others, which seemed extremely blatant; I kept waiting for someone to ask her why she had the binder, what was in it, why it engrossed her so much in the middle of a crisis. I can see close associates of Myfanwy's, who knew she was little more than a glorified accountant, ignoring the binder, likely assuming it to be part of whatever project she might've been working on at the time, but outsiders would be ignorant of her position and most likely, I'm sure, be curious as to why she kept pulling out that binder. The biggest peeve I had, though, is the humor. I don't know what it is, but British writers, even ordinary Brits, seem to have such an easy wit; they just open their mouths and gems fall out. Even the most unimpressive of Brits come up with brilliant one-liners (Noel Gallagher about his brother, Liam: "He's like a guy with a fork in a world full of soup." Come on, that is freaking hilarious while being disparaging at the same time!) Yet the wit in The Rook never seemed easy; at times it felt a bit forced, as though O'Malley really wanted to be like Terry Pratchett, but struggled with it and so fell just short of the mark. That's not to say there aren't moments of outright humor in the novel, there are, just not as many as you would like. The one thing he does do well is explain exactly why using a chess analogy to run a super-secret government agency doesn't work, especially in a country with a monarchy. In fact, his little dissertation on the subject, in the voice of Myfanwy Thomas #1, is his most inspired piece in the novel.

It's funny. This book shouldn't work; it shouldn't be readable, it shouldn't be entertaining, and it certainly shouldn't be so successful. After all, the book suffers from info dumps galore (in the form of that purple binder, as well as the frequent letters from Myfanwy #1), which often delay and even derail the action. It features a main character who's often immature, obnoxious, and completely unprepared to deal with pretty much anything popping up in the story line. And the ending is, well, flat and awkward, not to mention misleading, appearing to set things up for a sequel only to tie up the story line a few pages later. Yet, I think the reason the book does work, despite these flaws, is because it doesn't take itself seriously. It's tongue-in-cheek, but it's self-aware: it winks at you to let you know it's tongue-in-cheek, but do try to take it seriously anyway, alright luv? It sounds too precious to work and logically it shouldn't work, but it does. Besides, who couldn't find a little love for a novel in which the main character owns a pet rabbit named Wolfgang?

Read June 16-25, 2012
Reviewed June 26, 2012 

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