Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

For my 12 Months 12 Books Challenge, I began with The Rook to fulfill, ‘A book you have, but haven’t read.’

Caution: SPOILERS

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had The Rook for a while. In all honesty, the reason I didn’t finish it long ago was that I just wasn’t dedicating time to reading. Whatever else I was doing, I wasn’t reading much.

This book, very thoughtfully, includes a Reading Group Guide, including a Questions and Topics for Discussion.

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So let’s have a look at those, shall we?

How would you compare the portrayal of women in The Rook to books with similar sci-fi and fantasy influences?

Confession time: I don’t read a lot of sci-fi. But I do know from my experience in sci-fi (tv shows and movies) and fantasy, that women do, weirdly, have a greater opportunity to kick ass than in other genres. Gina Torres has said in the past that she prefers sci-fi roles because it affords her, as a woman of colour, more than just the ‘best friend’ role. What does it say about us as a society that we have to make up outlandish new worlds in order to allow women to be formidable, and that’s the idea of gender equality is somehow more acceptable in the distant future or distinctly other worlds?

I have to say, though, genre comparison aside, I did enjoy the portrayal of the women and their relationships. Both Myfanwys had strengths and weaknesses, they had confidence about some things, insecurities about others, they had friends, allies, they made mistakes, and they took charge. I can’t remember any time when a woman was inappropriately sexualised (meaning inappropriate to the context of the scene), and I had to remind myself once or twice that it had been written by a man. There is an incident involving a scandalous red dress, and I found that to be rather humourously handled, and not cringey at all. For me, anyway; Myfanwy cringed a lot.

Myfanwy Thomas’ amnesia results in the emergence of a new completely different personality. Do you think personality is something one is born with, or the result of our memories and experiences?

Bit of both, but I fall more on the side of experiences and memories. Behaviour is learned. Pre-Amnesia Myfanwy (henceforth, PAM, for ease of typing) was taken from her family at an older age than usual, raised in a boarding school for peculiar children, failed to make significant friends, and generally kept to the shadows. Her formative years were isolated and lonely. Myfanwy (post-amnesia Myfanwy) came to life in the park, with two black eyes, surrounded by dead bodies. She was born in blood and battle, and hit the ground running. She wasn’t the Myfanwy who wrote letters and made binders, she was the Myfanwy who used her powers and fought.

In The Rook, the Checquy are empowered to take those children they deem necessary, for both the good of the nation and the good of the children. To what extent do you think this is justified? Can you think of a real-world equivalent, historical or contemporary?

The first thing that springs to mind is the missionary schools (schools that would kidnap Native American children, strip them of their identity, force them to speak English and assimilate, often violently, then return them to their communities barely recognisable) in the US in the 1800s, which were definitely not justified.

Then there are the rumoured ‘spy schools’ you see a lot of on tv, where children, usually orphans, are trained to be assassins and whatnot. I don’t know how much truth there is to those tropes. I admit I don’t know much about child soldiers.

From a logical standpoint, I can see why removing a dangerous element from society could seem like a reasonable action, but I just can’t get past the idea that these are children being taken from their parents. How are they supposed to grow up to be healthy and functioning people if their most basic relationships are taken from them on the grounds that they, and not their environment, are unusual. These children would necessarily have to go through a series of tests and training, none of which sound very nurturing. I firmly believe that children belong with their parents, especially if they’re atypical in any way. Nuclear biological family are the closest bonds we have.

Obviously this doesn’t apply to children who live in unsafe environments, have abusive or neglectful parents/family members, etc. I think this is why people use orphans–as a way to get around the dilemma. But the question was about powered children being removed from their families for the safety (and inevitably, use) of the nation.

So no, it’s not ok.

The Checquy works not only to protect normal people from supernatural threats, but also to keep them ignorant of those threats. Do you think real-world governments are justified in concealing dangers to the public?

Mmmm, in theory, yes. I don’t need to know about the everyday minutiae of running the government. I assume the experts can tell an idle threat from a real one. And If we had a government we could trust to take care of things without us needing to worry, that’d be grand.

But we don’t. We have idiots who can’t find their asses if they ask other people to help look.

This is why I don’t believe we have much of a threat from the supernatural world–because it would definitely be out of control and all over the news by now.

Do you think that the role of women in the Checquy is a realistic reflection of women in power in the real world?

HAHAHAHAHA, no.

When the men talk down to Myfanwy, it’s because they are referring to meek, mild-mannered, jumpy, pencil-pushing PAM; it’s not because she’s a woman. No one talked down to Shantay, I think everyone was afraid of Ingrid, despite her being a middle-aged woman with no powers.

And the people who didn’t know Myfanwy from before, like the Belgians, were pretty polite, specific characters in fishtanks excluded. But he was like that with Eckhart, too.

The Rook makes many references to works of fiction, popular culture, and mythology. What was one of your favourite references?

I’m not much for vampires, but I love that Alrich is a straight-up vampire. Not a superpowered manipulator with chronic anaemia. No, he’s definitely a vampire.

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Forgot about this one. I actually bookmarked it, I enjoyed it so much. But I’m not typing all that out.

How good a job do you think you would do masquerading as another person? Do you think your life would be difficult for another to assume?

Haha, not at all. Awful. Dreadful. I’d be found out in a second. I’m a pretty good liar about stuff that doesn’t matter. I can bluff facts and figures with the best of them. I can fake confidence…if it doesn’t matter. The minute I have to actually *gulp* act, in front of people, who are paying attention–no. I’d fold like a bad suit.

Which supernatural ability portrayed in The Rook would you like to have? Why?

Myfanwy’s mind control is pretty cool, and Gestalt’s hive-body is kind of far out, as is Lady Farrier is basically me in temperament, but I’d have to choose Eckhart’s control over metal. That’s infinitely useful.

Can you name the capital of Belgium?

Pretty sure it’s Brussels. *Looks it up* Yes, Brussels. Good, I was there briefly this summer. But I knew that before because I’m a Poirot nerd. Yes, that’s the only reason, my geography is awful.

~~~~

Now, for the actual review bit.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It had everything I like: a likable, relatable protagonist who wasn’t too much of anything (cocky, awkward, silly, sarcastic, efficient <– those are all traits I like, but one wants complex characters who are more than one thing). Every character had a distinct voice, I have strong feelings about each character. For me, the characters have to pop. If I don’t care about the characters, I can’t care about what happens to them.

Myfanwy comes into being suddenly, in the rain, beat to a pulp, surrounded by dead bodies, with no memory if who she is or what happened to her. She finds a letter which basically reads, ‘either read read Letter #2, assume my life, piece together what happened to me, and save the world; or, take the money and run.’ What would you do?

I’d read the letter. Scared shitless and totally out of my depth, but then I’m not a superpowered bureaucrat, so my experience is slightly different.

Over the course of the book, Myfanwy learns that the letters PAM left for her are invaluable, but not flawless. She can’t even trust the version of herself who had most of the answers. Still, she forms relationships all her own, including PAM’s secretary, an American supernatural bureaucrat, and PAM’s long-lost sister.

PAM herself is a significant character, despite us only ever getting to know her through the italicised letters she left Myfanwy. Yet, she is still a well-rounded, whole, complete character.

One thing I find refreshing is how her amnesia is dealt with. I read a pithy quip from Mythcreants on Twitter today along the lines of ‘there’s no reason to give your character amnesia if they’re going to remember the right information at the right time,’ and someone commented something like, ‘or don’t give them amnesia at all.’ And I feel it worth pointing out that Myfanwy never does get her memory back. It is totally gone for good. (Well, as of the end of The Rook. I can’t speak to the state of things in Stiletto) She is given the background through PAM’s letters, but she pieces the answer together herself in the present, and resolutely goes forward as the new Myfanwy, with PAM’s blessing. Which I think is nice. It’s like PAM was there all along.

The other members of the Checquy were also well-rounded. I found myself at different times, getting attached, scolding myself mentally, with the mantra that all Game of Thrones fans have been chanting for years, ‘Don’t get attached to Starks!‘ I knew someone in the Court had done it, but who? I didn’t want it to be any of them, and alternated the name in my ‘please not –‘ prayers.

But in the end, it all held up. There were a number of questions left unanswered, but I let them slide because this smells like the beginning of a series.  (Goodreads says yes, so good. I called it. I can let the questions percolate and also… *adds Stiletto to Want to Read shelf*)

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It deals mostly with issues of identity: who are you really? If you lost all of your memories, would you still be you?

Also, does what makes you other define you? Are you more than your powers, and should you be limited or exalted because of them? There is a vampire character who everyone is almost-too ok with. Then there are the unpowered people who fall into the awkward grey area–they help out the Checquy, and therefore more informed than the public, but are not themselves ‘special’ and so are not afforded the same respect within the system. In the civilian world, being other is often seen as shameful and dangerous, but inside the Checquy, the ‘normal’ people are the outsiders.

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Sneeches, always relevant.

And the Grafters are a whole other thing entirely.

The style is irreverent, O’Malley never shies away from a frank gross description, he handles the beautiful and the grotesque with the same sincerity. I’ve heard that this book is similar to this one or that one, I agree that he has a certain Douglas Adams-ness to his voice, but that only adds to the accessibility. It helps that at the beginning, Myfanwy is just as confused about everything as the audience is.

I gave it a 4/5 stars on Goodreads because it’s not flawless. I did find a typo (which is whatever. I shudder to think how many I have), and there were quite a few instances where the same significant word was repeated in too short a space of time. That’s a beta issue, in fairness, but it was distracting. There were also a couple times where Myfanwy referred to a specific character using the exact same phrase, which could be brushed away as a character quirk, but it stuck out to me. There were a couple instances of head-hopping, too. But these are all nit-picky things.

There were a couple of places where the description wasn’t as tight as in other places. In such an exotic world as a house completely covered in purple fungus, full of chanting cult members, you’ve got to have those details clear as a bell because the audience can’t pick up the slack for you and fill in the blanks.

It’s just preference, but modern, sci-fi, and spy thrillers generally aren’t my thing. They’re not bad, but I’m rating this book from the perspective of someone who likes histfic, cozy murder mysteries, and fantasy. So for me, it’s a 4/5.

There’s nothing wrong with it, and I am interested in the second book, but I’m not sure I’d take time away from the rest of my TBR pile to reread it. Especially, since at 486 pages, it is a bit of a doorstop, and I have trouble finishing short books as it is.

That said, if you do like modern, supernatural spy thrillers with strong female characters, set in the greatest city on Earth, this book just might be your jam. It’s funny, surprisingly light-hearted, smart, and honest,

~~~~

What about you guys? Read any good books this month?

Are you playing along with 12 Months 12 Books?

What are your goals?

Next month, I’m reading Alice in Wonderland, but March is a literary classic, so I’m taking suggestions! Throw your suggestions (or opinions on anything I said above, or of The Rook, if you have them) in the comments below.

And don’t forget to follow me on social media and sign up for my newsletter!

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