What kind of author, for all practical purposes, kills off his primary character in the first few paragraphs of his debut novel? I mean, she’s not dead physically, but the person she was, her personality, her quirks, her memories… gone. And all she’s done is leave a note in her pocket that barely explains her situation to the mind that wakes up in her body. You’ve really got to wonder about an author who thinks he can pull that off, right? (And I’m not giving anything away here unless you randomly picked up the book in the bookstore without reading either the back copy or the inside of the cover flap to get an idea of what the book is about — it’s all there, believe me.)
Daniel O’Malley does manage to pull it off, but I really do think the man is disturbed (in a good way). It’s the only explanation for his first novel, The Rook. If you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft at all… or if you like stories with secret organizations and conspiracies that seem to feed back upon themselves… or if you like a good mystery… or if you like a world filled with things that go bump in the night and are best left unimagined… well, stop reading right now and go pick up The Rook. Hands down, I have not enjoyed a good supernatural novel this much for quite some time. It’s got it all: secret powers, mysterious organizations, dark corners that the general public isn’t aware of, twisted scientists, and a duck that can see the future. (And if the duck really bothers you, then you can pretty much write this book off as you likely lack the dark sense of humor that this serious tale requires if you wish to not run screaming into the night.)
So, some basics first. I’ve mentioned Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) and the fact that she’s woken up in London bruised and bloodied, surrounded by dead bodies who are all wearing latex gloves. She really doesn’t know who she is, so thankfully the person she used to be has left her a note to get her moving and away from danger. And there’s a lot of danger that Myfanwy is facing. You see, she works for an ultra secret British organization that protects the world from all those Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. The Checquy have been around a long time, and they’re more of a bureaucracy now (with positions named after chess pieces)… but a bureaucracy with powerful employees who have all received special training at a special school that seeks out those with special powers and gifts at a young age. And the world needs these folks — apparently, there are a lot of bad people and bad things lurking around the corners and always just out of sight of us normal citizens. Thankfully those of us living in the USA have its sister organization to watch over us, but I’ve already said too much I imagine.
Let’s just say that Myfanwy holds a very special place in the organization (her rank is Rook, by the way). A place that gives her access to money, weapons, and much more. But she’s lost her memory, and unless she wants to be tucked away for the rest of her life and forgotten, she’s going to have to convince her colleagues that she’s still the Myfanwy they all know and respect. Maybe even fear a bit. Given her special ability, fear is probably the better choice.
While she’s trying to fit back into her job, she’s got fires to put out. And when I say fires, I’m understating the problems. We’re talking world-destroying problems. Things that H.P. Lovecraft probably couldn’t have imagined. And, of course, every secret organization needs an adversarial organization that’s out to destroy it, right? Well, O’Malley’s thrown that into the book as well. I mean, why not? It’s obvious that he has no love for his primary character because he honestly just can’t cut her any slack. She’s trying to figure out how Myfanwy #1 was obliterated, leaving Myfanwy #2 to pick up the pieces of her life. Oh, and she does have a life — sort of. She’s got a pet rabbit (just go with me on this, all right?) and… well… she’s got a pet rabbit. But O’Malley does manage to reintroduce Myfanwy to a long lost relative, so there’s some family drama mixed in and that can’t be all that bad. Well, it can — especially when every enemy of the Checquy decides to come after Myfwany #2, including her family, her closest co-workers, and maybe a traitor or two. Or three.
The Rook runs almost 500 pages. You’re not going to complain about a lack of subplots, trust me. And some of the subplots have sub-subplots. It’s detailed, gritty, storytelling that I read in all of three days. It’s just that good.
A few words of warning, however — don’t get attached to any characters, okay? I made that mistake and must now live with the deep dark void in my soul that getting too caught up in the life of a minor character inevitably creates. And don’t even think for a moment that you’ve figured it out halfway through the story — you haven’t. And finally, don’t leave the book sitting in direct sunlight — you’ve been warned.
I managed to track down Daniel O’Malley using a squirrel claw, some leaves from a dead tree, three drops of lemonade, and a strange incantation provided to me by his publisher. The following question and answer session was conducted during a hail storm while the author’s disembodied head floated over my dining room table. I’ll say it again — Mr. O’Malley must be disturbed. Enjoy the conversation, but beware of spoilers.
Kelly: First, please describe, using your best horror prose, that feeling in your gut when you discovered the computer crash had lost 200+ pages of your draft version of The Rook (and before you discovered a miraculous backup). [Note: This really did happen.]
O’Malley: It’s a hard thing on a brain when it gets stabbed first thing in the morning, before it’s even had a chance to have some coffee. When you’re still swaddled in that comfortable haze of sleep, shuffling around gently in your pyjamas. When you’re not even awake enough to know that you’re happy.
It was a warm morning in Providence, and I had padded downstairs to the living room, absently powering-up my computer, and turning on the TV. If I’d given it any thought, I would have acknowledged that I was pleased with the universe. The novel was coming along pretty well, I’d gotten a good number of pages down in the past few weeks, and I knew mostly where I wanted it to go. I flopped down on the couch, watching the news while I waited for the desktop to resolve itself. Automatically, I clicked on the file for The Rook, then turned my attention back to the story of the day.
And then the computer made a little apologetic tone, a little blip in the routine of the morning. I dragged my attention away from the news, and saw a little message on the screen.
I can’t remember the exact words. Something about corruption. Or maybe something about not being able to recover the file. But I remember being very calm, and clicking OK, and then trying to open the file again. And getting that same little message again.
I’m not a calm person, I can panic at the drop of a hat, but I was absolutely glacial. I restarted the computer, and spent the longest minutes of my life waiting for it to bring up the desktop
And getting that message again.
This is happening, I thought distantly, and I could feel the panic welling up inside me. This is really happening, and, and, and there is nothing I can do, and, and there’s noonewhocanhelpmeandohGodPleaseNoPleaseNoPlease! PLEASE! Please don’t let this be!
Please, I said brokenly.
But nothing changed. My work was gone, torn out of this world forever by something that didn’t care, and wouldn’t answer.
And it felt like the end of the world had come.
But it was just the end of me.
Kelly: Your blog mentioned that the premise of the story, a person waking to discover herself in an unfamiliar body with no memory, was based on your brainstorming while taking notes for a class and experiencing some sort of existential amnesia. Obviously (hopefully) not counting the dead bodies with latex gloves surrounding Myfanwy, are there any other aspects of her storyline that share an origin with your own story, personal or work-related?
O’Malley: Existential amnesia is giving me way too much credit. I actually kind of zoned out from boredom, and suddenly wondered how well I would do if I were suddenly beamed into my own body. How much information could I glean from the situation? How well could someone fake being me? I’ll admit that, during particularly boring lectures and meetings, I sometimes pretend that that’s happened and, when asked questions, will try to formulate an answer as if I knew nothing. Which is not always that hard.
As to the rest of my life feeding into The Rook, well, the Estate (the training academy for the Checquy) drew somewhat from my experiences in private school, but not too much. And while the book is set in the British Civil Service, and I work in the Australian Public Service, I actually started writing it before I got a Government job. When I started working in the Public Service, I was convinced that I would get all sorts of fascinating details to cram into the novel, and stuff to make fun of, but it’s a disappointingly professional place.
Kelly: I think H.P. Lovecraft might very well run screaming into the night if he were to read some of the events that the Checquy deal with on a day-to-day basis. Were there any events that didn’t make it into the final story? Secrets that man was not meant to know?
O’Malley: The two big scenes that I recall that ultimately didn’t make it were a conversation with a woman whose child had been taken from her, and a meeting with a skeptical Chancellor of the Exchequer over funding for the Checquy. Both of them were fairly harrowing, in different ways.
The chapter with the mother was part of Thomas’s investigation into Camp Caius, and the children who were taken there. It was sad, and emotional, and I think it helped to demonstrate how distant the agents of the Checquy are from the people that they protect, but it didn’t actually add that many more clues for Thomas to follow, so it had to go.
The scene with the Chancellor of the Exchequer reached into all my employee fears, where someone sits you down and demands to know exactly what you have been doing, and whether they should really be giving you money. It was fun having an unbelieving character, one who was incredulous and horrified that this relic of history was still part of the Government and was still drawing a ridiculous amount of money. The Checquy demonstrated to him how little he actually knew about the world, and how vital they are, and got their funding, but it added more bureaucracy to a book that already had its fair share. Plus, thinking about budgets and reconciliation always makes me nervous.
Kelly: Okay, spoiler question here, so please skip ahead readers if you absolutely don’t want to know anything plot-related: The duck that can see the future. Are you at all upset at the killing off of such a major character? Is it possible that some twist of magic or dark science might bring the duck back?
O’Malley: I have to admit, I was relieved. I had been terribly pleased with myself when I came up with the oracular duck, and the scenes with it were really fun to write, but then I found that I’d written myself into a corner. A creature that could tell the future wasn’t the kind of thing you can have lying around. Well, standing around, crapping on tables, really. If Myfanwy was going to have access to the duck, then that meant that everyone in the organization was going to have access to the duck, and I couldn’t allow her enemies to know what was going to happen. So, it had to die.
Will it be coming back? Well, I’m trying to avoid the possibility of resurrection in the Checquy universe – if there’s a possibility that someone’s not dead for good, then killing them doesn’t have quite the impact anymore. And as delightful as the idea of poultry being used to decide national policy is, and despite the fact that the Checquy does have access to some unorthodox capabilities, I don’t expect that the duck will be reappearing. The Grafters would love to get their hands on it, though.
Kelly: The Grafters are a disturbing enemy. Immortality and the ability to grow new limbs seems all fine and dandy, but do you feel you crossed any boundaries or violated simple good taste when writing the limo/fish tank scene? I’m not saying you did… but the images in my mind after reading that scene can never be scrubbed away.
O’Malley: In a lot of ways, the Grafters, for all their alchemical traditions, represent technology and science. Unlike the Checquy, they make their own powers, through their own skills and ideas and intelligence. And with every technological development, fictional or real, there are people who eagerly embrace it, and people who find it repellent or frightening. The Grafters are people who will never (or rarely) hesitate to push themselves forward, exploring new ground, and they leave the sensibilities of the past behind.
That said, I think the most horrifying thing about the guy in the fish tank is his appalling lack of common courtesy.
Kelly: A secret organization that protects us normal citizens from the darkness seems like a good idea. But where’s the oversight? The expenditures for this organization are way out of control, even when considering its mandate. I realize the Queen and the Prime Minister are aware of the organization, but don’t you feel that taxpayers are owed an explanation of where the money all goes?
O’Malley: Ha! Awesome question. I mentioned earlier that there was a scene with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that got cut, and it explored some of the financial aspects of the Checquy.
To begin with, the Checquy has had centuries to accumulate wealth, and there are trusts and bequests and estates that are quietly helping to pay the bills. The ruling monarch traditionally gives a substantial (and secret) gift to the Checquy upon coronation. And it’s probably not surprising that when people are brought up by an organization, and work for it all their life, they’re going to leave a sizable portion of their money back to it, so the Checquy always has money coming in.
That said, a sizable portion of the Checquy budget does come from taxpayer dollars — or pounds, I suppose. So, should the taxpayers know that they’re helping to pay for a supernatural defense and law enforcement force? There are two answers, the Checquy’s answer and mine.
The Checquy would say, rather haughtily, that they represent security – secret security, and that if the British public knew about them, and where every penny went, then so would their enemies. If information is released out there, then the security of the realm would be put at risk.
Also, there’s also the fact that the Checquy represents everything frightening and unknown. What they fight, and what they are cannot be explained. Science can’t unravel it, it flies in the face of all religions – hell, it flies in the face of common sense. The issues that the Checquy confront every day, as a matter of routine, would turn a normal person’s world upside down, and revealing them would devastate society.
Plus, of course, all the Checquy operatives are government employees, and they pay exorbitant taxes.
My answer is that I wanted it to be a secret organization, and you can’t have that if people know about it.
Kelly: Okay, I get that the Checquy’s sister organization here in the States is called the Croatoan. But you never explained the name, especially given that so many of us know about The Lost Colony at Roanoke Island. What happened exactly, or are you not at liberty to reveal that kind of story?
O’Malley: The mystery of Roanoke Island has really resonated with me, ever since my mum told me about it. It’s the first great mystery of the New World, so naturally the Checquy had to tie into it somehow. But unfortunately, I can’t yet tell you about it. Not yet. The Croatoan, and the New World in general are going to be explored a lot more in the future, and the story of the Lost Colony is not at all pretty. My main intention with the American version of the Checquy was to have it be much smaller than its parent organization. I liked the idea that the country had these built-in immunities to a lot of the supernatural craziness, and that the Americans weren’t the superpower in this regard.
Kelly: A lot of books should come with a warning sticker that lets readers know not to get too attached to any characters. You’ve got death, destruction, and dismemberment in spades here — was there any particular character that you absolutely enjoyed sending to the great beyond?
O’Malley: There are a few vile and obnoxious people whose deaths didn’t pain me at all. And a couple of decent people who died before I could give them as much time as they deserved. But the ones whose death most took me aback and satisfied me were a couple of armed flunkies who Myfanwy dispatches near the end of the book. When she takes them out, or rather, when they take each other out under her ‘supervision,’ I wanted it to be sudden and shocking. It shows how big the stakes have gotten, that she can do it without even worrying about it.
Of course, there’s also a dragon-related fatality whose death had me smirking, mainly because so much of that character is me as a teenager.
Kelly: World building is something that readers love in a first novel, and you’ve done a great job of creating a world that I absolutely would never want to visit. Congratulations. (Not really a question, I know, but it had to be said.)
O’Malley: Shucks. Thanks a lot. So many of the details in the Checquy universe (which could totally be our universe) came because I’d noticed a plot hole, or some flaw that nagged at me and required an explanation. I’m really excited about exploring the rest of that world, both geographically and historically.
Kelly: Let’s talk sequel! Seriously, your blog mentions that you might like to revisit the Checquy again someday. Haven’t these people suffered enough? Can’t you just leave them alone to enjoy the fruits of their hard work (and deaths… and betrayals… and conspiracies)? Do you have something against a nice quiet evening spent with friends and family instead of at the office?
O’Malley: Those poor Government employees deserve a nice quiet evening, they really do. And I’m a public servant myself, so I do know the value of a day in which nothing unexpected happens. And I thought I’d given them that. When I finished The Rook, I didn’t think there was going to be a sequel.
But then I started thinking about the implications of the ending (for the organization, not for the heroine). And then I thought of some cool new supernatural powers for people to have. And then I thought of a new couple of people to follow. And then I thought of some ideas for how the rest of the world copes with its supernatural menaces. So, the sequel is in the works, I’m afraid. The Checquy are just going to have to cope.