By Sky Friedlander | Off the Shelf
As a kid, I was very preoccupied with the idea of losing something as I aged. You see it a lot in children's literature -- adults can't see the magical creature in the window, or the spell that's been placed over the town, because they're too old and distractible. In the Harry Potter books, this idea applies to the whole mass of Muggles who don't see the magic that's all around them. I don't want to be a Muggle, or any kind of magic-blind adult! my nine-year-old self thought. Though I had never "officially" seen a fairy or a ghost or a kid riding a broomstick, as a child, I knew I still could, right? As it turns out, growing older hasn't really robbed me of my ability to see magic, or, if I want to psychoanalyze my childhood fear a little bit, my ability to find joy in the world around me. The only real disappointment in this area I can report is losing a little bit of the incredible joy I used to find so easily in books.
I don't want to make it sound like I hate reading now. I don't! I studied Renaissance Lit in college! I've worked in a library and currently work at a bookstore. I have as much book-nerd cred as you can have, this side of reading Ulysses or getting my MLS degree (maybe someday yes to both?). But I used to walk into the library and just grab stuff. Anything that looked interesting, regardless of critical response, or even knowing the genre. I always had a stack of books next to my bed and I would plow through them. My success rate was very high. I found some great stuff without being directed to it, like Ursula Le Guin and Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman. This stuff got me so excited -- I was reading three books at a time as a child. I was exclaiming and laughing out loud during silent reading time at school. I read a book before I went to sleep, every night, from the age of six through college.
Now that I am around thousands of books, five days a week, for nine hours a day at the Strand Bookstore where I work, I have the hardest time finding even one book to read. I'll abandon a book thirty pages in (sorry, The Price of Salt and My Struggle, you now belong to the purgatory that is my bookcase). I hardly ever read before turning the lights off for bed. It's mostly on my commute that I get any reading in, and even then books have to compete with Longreads, maybe the best app ever. Even writing about this is bumming me out. Where have the good times gone?
But let me get to The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley. It's good. Like, really good. It made me feel a spark of what it was like reading the first Harry Potter book as a nine-year-old, or the Wheel of Time series as an eleven-year-old. (Should I have picked less nerdy references? Bring it, Robert Jordan haters! Those books are totally good, says the middle-schooler who will always be a part of me.) That excited, can't-read-it-fast-enough feeling. There are lots of good reading experiences to be had, but that's always been my favorite--the thrill of a complicated plot in the hands of a skilled author. The "WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN GAH" feeling.
I looked up The Rook on Amazon just now to refresh my memory and found myself reading the entire sample. It's a real page-turner, a thriller, a potboiler in the best sense. It draws you in expertly. I got to the end of the sample with a disappointed jolt of surprise.
I like to recommend it to people who are looking for a mystery with a little touch of fantasy or a fantasy with a dash of mystery -- think Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or The Night Circus. Even if you come in just looking for something fun to read, I might try and put this in your hands. Mystery lovers, though, will recognize The Rook as a classic, tightly plotted mystery with a great payoff. It's exhilarating to know you're reading something that has set traps for you, well-oiled traps that will go off at just the right moment. They'll catch you in their metal claws and you'll love it.
Just a tiny bit of the plot, I won't ruin anything: a woman, Myfanwy Thomas (that name!!), wakes up in the middle of the night in London, surrounded by dead bodies, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. Thus begins a mystery involving a secret organization akin to MI6 but for supernatural threats -- an organization that Myfanwy is supposed to be a member of. She must navigate this fantastical world with no notion of who is friend or foe, or what she or the people around her are capable of.
If you're chasing the high a brilliant plot can deliver, you won't find much better than this. The Rook is the type of fantasy story where the supernatural exists on the fringes of our own world -- just around the corner, or in the next office building -- but we Muggles are incapable of seeing it. This kind of fantasy story makes great fodder for mystery, a genre devoted to the evils we overlook every day. We see the crime that has been committed at the beginning of the tale, but we don't immediately see who did it; we have to be taken on a journey by the author of the story or the detective. The Rook pulls the curtains back and shows us both a great mystery but also a world that is full of magic -- a threatening, exciting, intoxicating world that you'll want to fall into.