rook“Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Over the years I’ve encountered so many books that I wish I’d written, but known that I’d never be able to do them as well as they were done. Rowling and Fforde have both done wonders with their works, but there are numerous other titles too. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, for one – I had a very similar idea about a week before I found the book. And Superpowers by David J Schwartz: I considered something very similar for about a month before finding it. But then there are books that I didn’t know I wanted to have written until after I’d read them. This brings us to The Rook – a book oddly written by an Australian, first published in the USA, but set very definitely in Britain.

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London park, surrounded by gloved corpses and with absolutely no memory of how she got there. A letter in her pocket informs her of whose body she is inhabiting and she makes her way to a hotel to sleep and hopefully recover some memories. When none come, she finds another letter and is asked to make a choice. She can either run away and start a new life that the Myfanwy Thomas writing her letters has arranged for her, or she can choose to continue impersonating Myfanwy. Although originally going for the first option, when the time comes she finds it impossible to resist the second. Thus, her life becomes something rather strange indeed.

It turns out that Myfanwy Thomas is an operative in the Checquy, a top secret agency that deals with the supernatural, bizarre and downright weird. Everyone working for it has a superpower of some kind – Myfanwy can manipulate people’s nervous systems – and the positions of high office are named for chess pieces. Myfanwy is a Rook. She finds herself thrown into a world where the magical seems mundane, and she has to try and convince everyone that she is the real deal, which proves harder than one would imagine when she doesn’t know a thing about her predecessor.

Before look, Myfanwy and the reader are catapulted into a series of adventures involving a centuries old group of dangerous Belgian scientists who have given a whole new meaning to “biological warfare”, dragons, vampires, secret schools for the superpowered, a prophetic duck, and piles and piles of paperwork. On top of this, she must try and work out who it was that came before her and what happened. No small task when you can’t even remember your own address.

It’s hard to try and explain this book any further without ruining the surprises along the way. It’s mad, it’s intelligent, it’s incredibly funny, and it’s creative to all extremes. It seems nonsense, but it works, and everything hangs together neatly. The Rook plays with your expectations. The heroine is not a gung-ho adventure type, but a quiet, shy, efficient bureaucrat. What you think you see coming as the final showdown happens two hundred pages before the end, opening much more speculation about what the hell could come next. The exposition is neatly handled in a genuinely realistic way. The magic and powers on show are highly unusual and wonderfully creative. And best of all, there’s barely a hint of a romantic subplot, without having to resort to turning Myfanwy into a man-hater or indeed give any excuse for why she does or doesn’t seek a husband at every waking moment.

It’s peppered with wonderful, interesting characters, not least Myfanwy who is incredibly likeable, and everyone with a name is given some characterisation, often rather a lot. I’m particularly fond of Ingrid, Myfanwy’s super efficient personal assistant, and Gestalt, a mind with four bodies. The idea of having the original owner of Myfanwy’s body leave her a lot of notes behind to help her means that the exposition comes with humour and seems natural, rather than having to have the other characters explain things over and over again. Somewhat wonky in its chronology, jumping between narrators – primarily the two owners of the heroine’s body – it manages to grip you and keep you interested for nearly five hundred pages.

The book’s cover states “Welcome to MI5 … for wizards” but it’s so much more than that. It’s a science fiction fantasy mystery comic novel about a fully-realised, brilliantly constructed universe in which magic is kept hidden from the general population. O’Malley has given real thought to the history of this organisation, and the jokes come thick and fast, interspersed with some really quite horrific scenes.

I’ve gone a bit overboard on the adverbs today, but it feels necessary. This book is a gem of the genre – whatever genre that might be – and is sure to delight anyone who likes a bit of magic and mystery in their lives.

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