Daniel O’Malley’s 2012 debut novel The Rook is the first book in the Checquy Files series.
Myfanwy Thomas’ memories go back only hours, to the moment when she found herself surrounded by dead assailants. Before that, another Myfanway occupied her body, a Myfanwy whose personality (and more importantly, limitations) were quite unlike the woman who formed from the remnants of that Myfanwy’s mind.
If only Myfanwy knew who mind-wiped her. If only the list of suspects were not so long. Or the suspects so powerful.
The Checquy is the secret bulwark between Britain and unnatural threats. A dragon running amok in Bath? A vampire in Whitechapel? An eldritch horror running a sweet shop in Netherfield? Call the Checquy!1 If throwing their expendable redshirt retainers at the monster of the week fails, their superpowered agents will step in. Agents like Myfanwy.
The job pays well but working for the Checquy was not a choice for the previous Myfanwy. Imbued with powers of a particularly impressive variety (as her dead attackers found out the hard way) Myfanway was drafted as a child; the only way she could leave the organization is by dying, from natural causes, job-related casualty, or just executed in some spectacular fashion by the Checquy for trying to leave.
The lost Myfanwy, aware that she would be mind-wiped, although not in any way that would let her avoid her doom, left voluminous notes, hoping to save her new self from a repeated death (or what amounts to it). The new Myfanwy could try to run; her predecessor did her best to make running away possible.
Myfanwy chooses to stay and fight. She has her lofty rank within the Checquy, her superpowers, and her old self’s notes. She has no idea who her enemy is. Just that her enemy has comparable or superior rank and ability. And that whoever it is knows what’s going on, whereas Myfanwy has only guesses and conjectures.
I went into this with the wrong mindset. For some reason, I was expecting a gloomy British espionage procedural like Sandbaggers or perhaps one of the more morose Len Deighton or John Le Carré novels. True, Myfanwy may at any moment be mind-wiped again; people foolish enough to stand near her tend not to survive very long. But between the screams, there is sometimes laughter. Sometimes actual laughter and not just the sort made by people whose minds have shattered.
Speaking of elements encountered many times before, the Checquy is yet another shadowy organization that uses potential existential threats to justify some fairly horrible behaviour, behaviour that ranges from enslaving and indoctrinating super-powered janissaries to a fairly casual attitude toward the erasure of innocent bystanders who know too much or who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The group also embraces what seem to be fairly counterproductive policies to avoid oversight: ruthlessly concealing the fact of one’s existence must make it harder for people to alert the Checquy in a timely fashion about unnatural threats. Somehow the Checquy have been able to make their approach work for centuries, which says something about how disorganized and inept their opponents must be2.
The group’s approach fails rather spectacularly in The Rook; the plot is driven by the inherent flaws in the organization’s approach.The rigid caste system of powered versus the merely useful mundanes undermines loyalty. Being taken from her family left the first Myfanwy traumatized for her short life; The Checquy’s particular organizational metaphor (chess) is demonstrably badly suited to a real organization, but is kept because change is bad. Although, no matter how reluctant the Checquy is to acknowledge the fact, change is also unavoidable.
How many amnesiac super-powered, ultra-competent3 heroes have there been, exactly? The narrative advantages are obvious, beginning with an excuse to pen lengthy infodumps explaining the ins and outs of the setting. O’Malley’s Actor’s Nightmare is an interesting variation: not only does Myfanwy need to work out what is going on around her, she has to do this without letting slip to her potentially murderous co-workers that she is not who she is pretending to be.
Myfanway is an engaging character. The power-up she gets at the beginning of this book is an unintended side-effect of her predecessor’s murder—erase the mind, erase its trauma-induced mental blocks—and seems unlikely to lead to runaway Telzy Amberdon syndrome. The long-term goal she sets for herself is an impressive one. I will certainly pick up the next book to see how it works out for her.
The Rook is available here.
1: You may then be very closely questioned by the Checquy about how you knew to call them, since they are supposed to be top secret.
2: Their visible opponents. During the course of the novel, we learn that at least two fairly powerful factions defend themselves from the Checquy simply by being careful not to attract the Checquy’s attention. And we’re not talking hiding somewhere far away and isolated: one group managed to hide for centuries in what is currently Belgium.
Interestingly, the Checquy are by no means the only group hamstrung by poor institutional choices and blind devotion to tradition. It’s as if the author were trying to make some sort of point.
3: Generally, the skill sets these characters tend to have are combat-oriented, which makes it rather odd that The Rook is one of two books I have encountered this week with protagonists particularly adept at paper-work.