The Rook by Daniel O’Malley and the problem with ‘chunksters’ #20booksofsummer24

Before I get to my review of The Rook, my third read in this year’s 20 Books of Summer challenge, let’s have a discussion about chunksters, shall we. Up until recently, I loosely defined chunksters as any book of 500 pages or over, nowadays I revised that down to 450, and I’m inclined to pull that down further to 400+ pages. My preference these days is 300 pages or fewer, and all hail the novella!

That’s not to say that there aren’t 500 page+ books that aren’t quick reads – many thrillers, for instance. But for every one of those I read, there’s another that has a large page count and is a much denser, less immediate read – and I often find myself begrudging the time it takes to get through them, and there are few that couldn’t have been edited to produce a taughter novel by losing 50-100 pages, or even more.

We had a great discussion at book group about Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence for instance, which weighs in at 536 pages in hardback, 752 in paperback and is very readable – but is very long. However, it was felt that to truly portray the obsession of the narrator with the object of his affections that the length was required. Although I could understand the argument, I still thought it was too long!

The upshot of this is, that I have a huge number of 400 page+ books on my TBR shelves from McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove to Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, from Nathan Hill’s The Nix to David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue and not forgetting Nicola Barker’s Darkmans – and I’ve recently acquired Andrew O’Hagan’s Caledonia Road!

The O’Hagan was a ‘must-have’, but I shall be more careful about acquiring others over 400 pages, especially for blog tours. But all the ones on my shelves remain, and I still would like to read most of them, I think. So, here’s hoping I can get through a few this summer, including The Rook

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The genre I read least of these days, which I used to devour, is probably fantasy, responsible for many a chunkster. The Rook was published in paperback in 2013, and my copy has been on my shelves since then. I have picked it up a few times, but put off by the length (482 pages) and relatively small font size, I’ve put it back. But recently, I picked it off the shelves again whilst shuffling books, and this time read the first few pages which won me over, so it became the first chunkster of my 20 Books of Summer this year.

The Rook is best described as an urban fantasy spy thriller, and it was the latter half of that description that grabbed me in particular, hoping it would do for MI5 what Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series has done for the Met Police.

It begins in suitably macabre style. A woman wakes up in a London park. She’s wet and surrounded by dead bodies, and they’re all wearing latex gloves. She has no idea who she is, but on finding a letter from her former self in the pocket it tells her she is in the body of Myfanwy Thomas, and that she should head to a hotel pronto, book in under an assumed name, as she is not safe, and only then read the second letter, which directs her to a bank vault with two boxes. She can only choose one: either enough cash to run away and live a nice life, or full access to her body’s former life. You can guess which she chose…

It turns out that Myfanwy is a ‘Rook’ in the top secret service, the ‘Chequy’ who keep Britain safe from supernatural terrorism. The organisation is based on chess pieces and the key players all have superpowers. Myfanwy is Rook Thomas, manipulator of people’s body control – but as a sensitive sort, a normally reluctant user – but she is the best manager of the Chequy’s operations they’ve had. She works with Rook Gestalt – one mind, four bodies – creepy. Up from her are the chevaliers and bishops, one of whom is a charismatic vampire, and the defacto king and queen of the Chequy. The pawns are the lowest rank with special powers, then there are all the civilians who work with them, including Ingrid, Myfanwy’s experienced older secretary. Between them they control a network that works throughout the tiers of government and armed forces to refer strange happenings to them to investigate. They are mirrored by a similar organisation in the USA.

Strange things are happening. Sniffer dogs at the airport were attracted to a man coming in from Belgium, who proved to be a person of interest. He is to be interrogated by Dr Crisp, a Chequy expert in extracting answers, but inexplicably dies muttering the Grafters are coming.

The Grafters are the Chequy’s centuries old foe, formed out of an ancient Belgian brotherhood. Masters of grafting flesh to tech, their re-emergence represents the biggest threat to the UK that the Chequy has seen, given the advances in technology over the years. Soon Myfanwy will find that she has to overcome her body’s former reluctance to get engaged in operations as the Grafters mount an attack in Bath… the first of many to come.

Given that the new Myfanwy is a blank slate, there’s a lot of filling in detail to do, which is told through entries in a large file which had been in the bank vault. Myfanwy had been foretold that she would lose her memory and been completely prepared for it. These sections are very much info dumps, and printed in italics, not the easiest to read. I ended up being quite selective about those bits I read thoroughly – mainly being interested in those referring to the here and now rather than the history of the Chequy and how they recruited their staff.

Of course there are those who recognise that new Myfanwy isn’t the same as old Myfanwy: Ingrid for one, and Lady Farrier, Chequy boss for another, but she is happy to let her continue in the role, despite the fact that new Myfanwy is having to make it up as she goes along, with time only to quickly read bits of the file. The new Myfanwy, whoever she is, will be key to unravelling how deep the Grafters have penetrated all levels of the Chequy and who are the traitors.

For those allergic to gore, as the novel progresses there is more and more of it, including plenty of slime! There were plenty of twists and turns and I had no idea who were the bad guys at all, except that Myfanwy and Ingrid weren’t! As characters I liked both of them, preferring new Myfanwy to the more pernickety old version – and we never get to discover the answer to who the new Myfanwy is. Ingrid is just great, always there to support her boss. Of the other Chequy staff the most intriguing is of course Rook Gestalt, Myfanwy’s counterpart – with three bodies always available while the fourth sleeps, a hive mind that can be in four different places at once – truly creepy.

Although the info dumps of the prolonged world and backstory building were a bit tedious for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but I’m not moved enough to read the sequel Stiletto from 2016, which continues on directly from The Rook.

Source: Own copy. Head of Zeus paperback 2013, 482 pages.

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15 thoughts on “The Rook by Daniel O’Malley and the problem with ‘chunksters’ #20booksofsummer24

  1. kimbofo says:

    I get put off by chunksters too. I reckon if you can’t tell a story in under 300 pages, maybe you need to tighten the narrative a bit 😆 Mind you, I read The Bee Sting at the start of the year (645 pages) and loved it and thought it was the ideal length to fully get to know each of the characters that take their turn to narrate the tale, so what would I know 🤷🏻‍♀️

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Bee Sting is another on my piles! I agree there are books that need the length (Auster’s 4321), but others – A Little Life – which was published unedited – need a good edit IMHO! 😀

  2. madamebibilophile says:

    I count a chunkster as anything over 400 pages and so often I think they could be tightened up. Having said that, one of my all time favourite novels is Middlemarch 😀 But generally I’m a fan of the concise!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Admission – I’ve never read Middlemarch (not really want to – sorry!) I did watch the BBC adaptation though which was great.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      When they are done well, they’re wonderful, I agree, but for every brilliant chunkster is at least one flabby one.

  3. mallikabooks15 says:

    Glad this worked well for you despite the length. I agree on the chunksters though–I can’t believe there was a time even 700 didn’t seem too daunting, but now I’m happiest with 300-400. Of course I do reread Dickens from time to time.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I feel you re the chunksters. I used to be fine with them – used to eat them for breakfast – but now I find myself hesitating. Part of it I put down to the fact that I have so many books I still want to read and my time is not going to be infinite! They have to be good chunksters to be worth it… 😂

  5. Elle says:

    Actually this sounds a lot like Pat Cadigan’s Fools, especially the four-bodies one-mind guy! Can be quite hard to follow, but it sounds like The Rook manages it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It does carry off the hive mind bit well actually, 3 male bodies and 1 female complicates things nicely too. I will definitely look up Fools, esp as in the SF masterworks series which I enjoy a lot in general.

  6. Liz Dexter says:

    I rather foolishly allowed my longest 20 Books book to be my first one, but I think Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness needed to be that long. As do a lot of Iris Murdochs and George Eliots. But they’re not great for 20 Books type affairs!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Well, this year I’m a glutton for punishment – just started a 497pager – but it is The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly inspired by Kit Williams’ Masquerade and I will love it.

  7. Litlove says:

    Chunksters are out for me. My eyes are on the whole a bit better than they were when I gave up Shiny, but not so good that I can take on 400+ pages. That would take forever for me to read or listen to. I’m very interested to know what you think of Caledonia Road though! (Which my son used to live off, as it happens!)

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