~~Moved from GR~~
The Rook (The Checquy Files #1)
by Daniel O'Malley
Recommended to Carly by: the fact that it made the extremely competitive "favorites" shelves of several reviewers I follow.
Recommended for: fans of Fforde/ Adams/ Pratchett/ Banks/ Stross/ generally absurd UF
Post-traumatic retrograde amnesia is one thing. Waking up with absolutely no memories of one's previous life in the centre of a circle of dead men wearing latex gloves is quite another. Fortunately for Myfanwy Thomas, her past self (referred to henceforth as Myfanwy 1.0, or simply M1.0) thought ahead, tucking notes to her future self in each of her pockets. Unfortunately, there is quite a lot for M2.0 to learn, for Myfanwy is a Rook, a high-ranking member of The Checquy, a.k.a. Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service. The case notes, transcribed in the third person by one Daniel O'Malley, chronicle M2.0's efforts to investigate the demise of her own personality, all while attempting to bluff her way through administrivia, interrogation sessions, infestations of hive-mind mould, and memories of precognitive ducks.
Who would you become if all of your memories were removed, yet your skills were left untouched? With traumatic events and recollections erased as thoroughly as past joys and relationships, would you be more confident and optimistic? Trauma as a child led M1.0 to a life of timorous hesitation and self-doubt and a retreat from action to administration, so without her memories, M2.0 has experienced a new lease on life. As she examines her world with new eyes, M2.0 reveals a disturbing social structure within the Checquy, where those gifted with supernatural powers are stolen from their families and trained into submission, then forced into a hierarchy where they may rise to reign supreme and live in opulence. M2.0 must again come to terms with her own impressive powers as well as meet (or re-meet?) a host of quirky characters, from the single-minded and multi-bodied Gestalt to the terrifyingly flexible Gubbins, to Shantay, her brash and sometimes literally bronzed American counterpart.
From the story's outset, absolutely nothing makes sense, and just like M2.0, the reader just has to go along for the ride. Information is soon available: M1.0's letters provide the perfect infodumping gimmick, and O'Malley takes ruthless advantage of the opportunity. The bizarre juxtapositions and sheer wackiness reminded me of Jasper Fforde, although I found myself far more engrossed in The Rook. M2.0 felt more genuine than Fforde's females, for some reason, and I found myself warming to her, despite the author's sometimes irritating attempts to "think female."; With each new twist and turn, O'Malley piles absurdity on absurdity until it is all so insane that it starts making a bizarre sort of sense. For example:
'You went out last night?' 'We went clubbing.' 'Clubbing?' Ingrid exclaimed. 'Yeah.' Myfanwy felt herself blushing. 'That's how my phone got all slimy. What did you think happened?'
The story is full of subtle puns. As one might expect from the name of the organisation (Get it? Get it?), there's a lot of chess humour, and while I waited in vain for M2.0 to castle, she does tend to obey the Tarrach rules. Although not a chess reference, the Checquey attack forces are called the Barghest, which makes them automatically pretty awesome. The jokes were far from subtle and often slapstick, but I generally found them well-placed and funny; for example:
'Damn that entire EU business!' said Wattleman. 'It’s all very well to have nice cheap cheeses, but did no one stop to think that the European continent is connected to ones that aren’t necessarily so… so…'
'Friendly?' offered Myfanwy.
'Secure?' suggested Eckhart.
'Full of nice cheap cheese?' said Gubbins.
Much of the humour derived from serious conversations about absurd subjects. I started laughing helplessly a few times, notably in the following scene:
Myfanwy looked down at her suspiciously and was blinded by a flash of light.
'That didn’t come out of me, did it?' she asked.
'Oh, no, we’re taking some digital photos.'
'Don’t worry, Rook Thomas,' said Dr. Burke. 'It’s not like we’re going to post these on the Internet. They’re for the outside doctor.' There was another jab of exceptional discomfort.
'That really is not pleasant,' said Myfanwy tightly.
'I’m sorry,' said Dr. Wills, 'it’s not normally so crowded in here.'
'I mean crowded in the examination room,' said Dr. Wills.
'Gentlemen,' snapped Myfanwy. 'Please try not to jostle my interrogational gynecologist!'
'We’ll be careful,' said Dr. Leichhardt soothingly. 'Now, this may be uncomfortable in an unorthodox way, but whatever you do, don’t clench.'
Myfanwy closed her eyes in horror and thought of England. She was just coming to the conclusion that England was totally not worth it when Dr. Wills snapped her gloves off.
'Rook Thomas, we’re just about done here. Now, I know you haven’t been interested before, but perhaps we should take this opportunity to talk about whether you’d like to start on birth control?'
Ingrid looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
Maybe I should lie and say that I’m a Grafter, she thought desperately. Or Satan. They’d probably stop this if I were Satan.
or the following oldie but goodie:
Now, after the dogs we have three gentlemen who are going to lick you.'
'Lick me?' Myfanwy asked in horror.
'Yes. Actually, we’re very lucky. We only had two men who were qualified to lick, but we were able to bring one of the students in from the Estate. Really, you have to pity them, because they’re the only three lickers we have and so they’re going to have to lick every member of the Checquy.'
'But how old is this student?' asked Myfanwy desperately.
Myfanwy’s stomach turned at the news. 'And where is he going to lick me?'
'In the examination room,' said Ingrid.
The mystery component is technically present but rather glaringly obvious, and I don't even want to start thinking about plot holes. The story has neither external nor internal logic, but for once in my life, I'm completely fine with that.
At the same time, I had a few issues with the story. Shantay, who spoke in language so unprofessional that it did us tacky Americans proud and slang so out-of-date that it was actually comprehensible, was perhaps one of the worst offenders. I have to admit I found her hilarious, however; here's some examples of her dialogue:
'Shantay’s an interesting name. Is it short for something?'
'Not so far as I know,' said Shantay. 'Why, is yours short for something?'
'Myfanwy? What could it be short for?'
'You know, it’s been years since I did anything like this,' remarked Shantay. She and Myfanwy were standing on the doorstep of the house, being given a final check-over by the techies.
'Oh, yeah?' Myfanwy was trying to figure out how she had suddenly acquired two knives and a large pistol. 'How many years?'
'One and a half.'
"Should I shoot them?' Shantay whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
'Is that your approach to everything?' asked Myfanwy out of the corner of her mouth.
'Pretty much. Maybe that explains why we have so few manifestations in the States.'
Unlike other "secret history" authors such as Tim Powers, O'Malley most definitely does not pride himself on his historical accuracy. (I was amused to realize that he provided my first British perspective in which the US was actually less dogmatic and hypocritical than the UK.) Scenes such as M1.0's letters and M2.0's tearful meeting with her suddenly-appearing sis Bronwyn, were notable for unnaturally flowery dialogue and stilted emotions. Like the dialogue, the city also felt less than genuine, and the introduction of the subplot in which M2.0's "sister" Bronwyn pops up out of nowhere was exceedingly clunky.(show spoiler)
M's entire background was problematic; M1.0 lived with her family until the age of 9, yet claims in her letters to be "too young" to remember them. Given the other details she remembers, it's hard to imagine sufficient trauma to M1.0 to erase the first third of her life. I also came to the conclusion that M's parents hate the Welsh; not content with horrifically bowdlerizing Myfanwy's beautiful name to "Miffany," they then named their second daughter a male Welsh name. Part of my criticality comes from the fact that I listened to this on audio and was inordinately irritated by the narrator; I definitely recommend reading rather than audioing this one. While I think fans of Ian M. Banks and Terry Pratchett will enjoy the ride, The Rook is entirely free from profundity and and analysis; it's just straightforward, honest-to-goodness, action-packed absurdism.
Overall, I really enjoyed the story; I was intrigued by the concept of a girl who can only become the woman she wants to be by completely erasing the person she once was. The bizarre mixture of character earnestness and absurd situations is both appealing and infinitely entertaining. I'm definitely onboard for the sequel.
 Do women generally assess all men on their "cuteness," even those with whom they professional relationships?
 Well, by my definition of "subtle," which is that the pun isn't bolded, explained, or suffixed by comments such as, "It's a pun[e], or play on words! Get it? Get it?"
 (Look it up; just as the suffix "ina" indicates an English female name, "yn" traditionally implies a male name in Welsh.)
 The intonation and changes in pitch have almost nothing to do with the sentence content, and the upward and downward waves in the pitch put my teeth on edge and probably make me vaguely seasick. Duerden gives each sentence a monotonous pitch, then does this bizarre tonal drifting; e.g. (where 1 indicates lowest pitch) 1-2-3-3-3-3-4-3-2-2-2-3-4-2, etc. She tends to drop to a flat pitch on the last or second-to-last syllable of sentences and phrases. When the last word is a single syllable, she sometimes drops pitch halfway through the last syllable of a sentence, dragging it out in an entirely unnatural and nerve-wracking fashion. It's rather sad, as Duerden clearly doesn't talk like this; she only tends to do this in her "narration" part; during the rest, she speaks like a human rather than late-90s automated conversation software.