Author: Daniel O’Malley (website / twitter)
UK Publisher: Head of Zeus
Genre: Contemporary fantasy
‘The body you are wearing used to be mine.’
So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.
She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Checquy that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare and deadly supernatural ability of her own.
I had some stuff I was actually supposed to be reading this week, but I took advantage of the free trial for StarzTV on Amazon to finally get around to watching the TV adaptation of this, and I was so furious about what they’d done that I had to re-read the book to make myself feel better. I really love this book. This book was what convinced me to apply for an internship at Head of Zeus. It’s funny, smart, and has a brilliant concept. It’s almost fantasy, but with some delightful ~handwave science~ applied. While some of the things in it are outrageous, the narrative and characters are wonderfully pragmatic, making situations seem absurd and serious at the same time.
The balance of magic and science has been explored a few times in media, as has the idae of magic legislature (the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter is probably the example most people would be familiar with, but there’s also the White Council in The Dresden Files), but these are often entirely disconnected from the world of mortals and technology. The Institute in Buffy was an exception, with magic and science co-existing, albeit uncomfortably. This is another. The Checquy is secret branch of the British government (its US equivalent, the Croatoan, was seeded by the Checquy during the arrival of the pilgrims), although it predates the government itself, and rather than being set up by the Prime Minister, or even the Monarch, the Checquy told those in power that it existed, what it would be doing, and how much they would be paid for doing it. And then they settled down and did it, for hundreds of years, effectively and at the cutting edge of magic and science.
At the front of all this is Myfanwy, who manages to be both the ‘old hand’ who introduces us to the story, and the newbie who needs to learn it all. By having Myfanwy lose her memories, but also prepare for the fact that she was going to lose her memories, O’Malley gives us a character who is thrown immediately into the action with no idea what’s happening, but who has a personally tailored guide to every possible thing that could happen. It also means the novel has a fun combination of structures – traditional third person limited narrative, and first person epistolery narrative. Past Myfanwy, aka Thomas, and Present Myfanwy giving their own spins on it.
One of the things that bothered me most about the television adaptation is that it erased one of my favourite things about Myfanwy – not her powers, which are neat and stronger than even she realised, but her administrative prowess. She’s an adapt manager, and its this skill that means she’s able to set up such an impressive network of support for the her that will exist when her memories are wiped; and these skills that help her continue to be effective even when she doesn’t have even half a clue what’s going on around her.
I also really enjoyed the comparisons between Thomas and Myfanwy. Thomas had a lot of traumas in her early life and the discovery of her powers, which led to her becoming shy, nervous, and unwilling to use her powers unnecessarily. She certainly has no concept of the full scope of them, partly because of this fear. Meanwhile Myfanwy is a blank slate, she has no trauma because she has no lived experience that she can remember. Instead, she suddenly has access to a body with fully developed powers that she is curious about and delighted with. She also no longer has the fears and neuroses that made Thomas so shy, and all the incidents of Myfanwy suddenly standing up to people who had been overbearing for years because Thomas would put up with it are absolutely delightful. The confusion and shock that receives every time are fantastic.
There were a few things I forgot about this book since my last reading. The first is how shady and gross the Checquy is. It has it written into the law of the land that they own any child born with powers, or any adult who develops powers later in life. Admittedly, they acknowledge that for many of these people their parents are glad to have the children taken from them, but not all of them. And once you’re in the Checquy, there’s no way out. You’re in it for life. Potentially they have a retirement scheme, but I’m unsure how many people get to use it because of the second thing I forgot about this book: the body count in it is unreal. People are dropping all over the shop, and it’s handled in an unusual way. The Checquy acknowledge the loss and the horror of it, but they’re very pragmatic and blase about it too. It’s clearly a narrative decision to demonstrate how important the Checquy is, because the threats and incidents they’re dealing with are so potentially deadly, and also a way to show how long the Checquy has been around for that rather than being phased by these deaths they’ve developed almost a black humour around them.
Of course, these things are mostly only mentioned in passing, and the rest of the book is a mixture of fantasy, humour and action. I love that Myfanwy isn’t forced into any romantic relationships (something that, again, the TV show handled extraordinarily badly), and how part of that is to do with her very real trauma relating to her powers, and part of it is to do with the fact that she has far more important stuff going on that she needs to focus on. It seems an extraordinarily low bar to set, but god it was refreshing. And I say this as someone who loves and enjoys romances.
This book still delights me on re-reads, however, and I think the concept and execution are so imaginative and well-executed, and the form of magic set up in it is one I’ve not seen before. It’s almost more akin to the X-Men than any traditional magic novel, and as with the X-Men not all the powers that people are born with are actually much use at all. These people born iwht powers are set against a history of dragons and vampires and alchemical body modification cults and clairvoyant ducks. The contrast of the fantastic with the mundane is where a lot of the humour comes from, and it grounds the book too. But Myfanwy, both pre- and post-memory loss, is the real heart of the book and she’s a fantastic character to spend time with.
- A really unique comic fantasy that takes the idea of supernatural powers and sets them against the mundanities of daily life and administrative functions to both ground the story and provide a delightful element of comic relief.
- The mix of narrative styles and also the two different voices for Myfanwy make for a fun and effective way to introduce the story and give two sides of the same character. It’s also a fun exploration of how experiences can impact a person’s personality.
- Not entirely relevant to the book, but the TV series cut out basically all the bits I love the most, and 90% of that was Myfanwy. All her administrative skills, all her quick-thinking, the way she re-masters her powers, the way she rolls with the punches. The TV show wasted the entire time with her trying to get back what she’d lost, while the book focuses on her forging a new life for herself aside from whoever she was before.
Rating: 5/5 – I’ve read it maybe three times now, and I still do love it deeply.