The Book Rat Project: Week Two


Last week, we introduced the Book Rat Project, a sustained experiment in which a book critic (me) will attempt to act as a human algorithm for a willing subject (my Phoenix colleague Will Delman) who, for the duration of the project, will read everything I tell him to. After submitting the subject to a brief, worthy questionnaire, I allowed him to select a title for himself and asked him to review it. He picked The Rook by Daniel O'Malley because, he said, a blurb compared it to Monty Python. To follow is the subject's review:


In his debut novel, Daniel O’Malley delivers an adequately literate mash-up of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Abrams’ Fringe, with dashes of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The Rook is a solid read for any fan of the soft sci-fi genre. From the first line, “The body you are wearing used to be mine”, The Rook is engrossing and full of enough references to keep the geek-set interested.

The Rook opens with heroine Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas standing in a London park, surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves. Reborn with no memories and beaten to a pulp, she finds a letter in her jacket pocket. She soon learns that she’s a Rook, a super-hero/accountant and an operative of the Checque, a secret British organization devoted to protecting the isle from supernatural threats. Her former self knew something she shouldn’t have, and now someone on the inside has stolen her memories and wants her dead.

From a pulp perspective, this novel has it all. Secret organizations slug it out in dark alleys. People get shot, stabbed, dismembered, and in one notable scene an indestructible skydiver decapitates a dragon. There’s even a semi-sentient house fungus that eats people. But there’s more to this book than flashy gore.

The charm of The Rook rests in the fact that it’s knows exactly what it is, but somehow manages to be more. Like Tarantino’s Deathproof, this is pulp+. Sure the character development is spotty, and the plot feels like something Howard Mackie might have cooked up for X-Factor circa 1996.


But O’Malley knows and loves his audience. This is a book for people that grew up on Doctor Who, The X-Men titles, Buffy, and The X-Files—or people that grew up, awkwardly, during the 90s—but graduated to the mysteries of Karin Fossum, the essays of David Foster Wallace, and Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

O’Malley moves easily from scenes of espionage to ultra-violence to stylistic self-awareness with an ease that’s admirable. Still, The Rook falls short of what it might have been. The best books in the sci-fi genre are will always be full of social commentary, satire, and new ideas—or at least new analyses of old ideas. This book fails on those fronts, much like the massively hyped but easily consumed and forgotten Watchmen.

Does that mean The Rook is unsatisfying? It depends on what the reader’s looking for. There’s a reason why everyone that’s talking about this book (including me) compares it to comic books and television shows; it feels less like a novel than a pitch for the sort of project AMC or SyFy might try to grow their brands around. In other words, this isn’t a groundbreaking novel, but it’s certainly entertaining. Anyone that’s been a comic book fan, enjoyed a sci-fi television show or film, or even found themselves guiltily tickled by an Anne Rice novel will probably get a kick out of The Rook.



From this selection and review, I've determined the following truths about the subject's taste preferences:

- The subject likes science fiction

- The subject likes social commentary

- The subject finds pulp without substance to be a little off-putting

Based on these preferences and last week's survey, I'm forcing the subject to read his first Book Rat Project-mandated selection: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. The book contains elements of Vonnegut's wry humor, and it spans the genres of realistic literary fiction and mystery. Adding to its appeal, the book takes place in North Korea, a country so strange it has elements of a science fictional universe.  We'll have the subject's take next week. In the meantime, you can check in on his progress on Twitter.

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