I initially goofed on the timing for this one, so I've been waiting gleefully for the paperback release to actually post the review. This one was another excellent loan from Misanthrope, who owns the hardback.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Length: Beautifully paced to carry the intricacy (512 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: January 11, 2012 from Little, Brown and Company
Premise: Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a park surrounded by corpses in latex gloves and with no memory of who she is. A letter in her pocket tell her what her name is and where to go to hide, and the next letters present her with a choice: to hide somewhere safe, or to step into a position of supernatural power and figure out who washed away her body's former inhabitant.
Warnings: disturbing threatened use of tentacles, gore, threatened and implied torture of secondary characters
Recommendation: If you're all patient with books that take time to dig into the mysteries that they present, give this one a shot. It has a great hook and a fascinating cast of characters; I'm already looking forward to the sequel.
Why this one feels perfectly brisk even at five hundred pages:
With an opening sentence like "Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine," I was cautiously intrigued; transplanting a new mind into an established body can be very hit or miss. Myfanwy (to rhyme with "Tiffany") Thomas knew that she was going to be erased from her own body, so she set up a system of notes and binders and deposit boxes for the person who would take her place. This person thinks about the latex-gloved corpses that surrounded her when she woke up and is disdainful of the offered mysterious choice of taking up her old body's position of power and "knowledge beyond the dreams of normal people," at least until she goes to the bank to open the safe deposit box that will start her on a new life of safety somewhere far away. More people in latex gloves ambush her there, but when her arm is forced nearly to the breaking point, she screams in rage and pain....and leaves all four of her attackers twitching helplessly on the floor. She decides that she wants to know everything and opens the other safe-deposit box to find a suitcase full of letters from her past self.
New-Myfanwy is funny, with lines like "if I had known that other people would be reading it, I would have...I don't know! I'd had used the spell-checker more!" but her past self writing the letters sounds wry and cynical in way that provides a good counterpoint to her public image. Past-Myfanwy had a reputation for being mousy and never asserting herself, only rising to the rank of Rook in the Court by virtue of her skills as an administrator. The organizational system of the Checquy is simple enough; members without powers are Retainers, and those who do have powers are Pawns. The back row of the chessboard is led by the Lord and Lady (British royalty was unamused about communicating with a King and Queen) and contains two each of Rooks, Chevaliers, and Bishops. Myfanwy gets along tolerably well with the Court members but is suspicious of all of them because the letters said that only a member of the Court would have been in a position to so thoroughly incapacitate her without being detected. The members themselves are enthralling, with a variety of powers and dispositions: Lady Farrier can walk through dreams, Gestalt is one consciousness in four bodies, Grantchester can emit many types of gases from his bare skin, and others are even stranger. The variety is somewhat similar to the X-Men, with an interesting hint that the number of powered individuals has stayed relatively steady in proportion to the population, even after many have died in battles.
The snippets from the letters are woven throughout the story in a way that avoids dumping too much information at once. It's clear that new-Myfanwy at least skimmed the letters and binders full of information as quickly as she could, and she pulls out the relevant entries in more detail as they fit into the story; the narrator and the character seem to be learning at the same pace, and it's elegantly organic. It doesn't feel awkward, in part because she's often re-reading these documents in a car or helicopter on her way to an important encounter. It lets the narrative breathe between slow intrigue and tight action sequences, building the world through the eyes of a shy but talented bureaucrat. She fights not to cry when people snap at her, but when the first dragon in centuries hatches and start to wreak havoc in front of the Checquy, she simply activates one of her carefully-prepared contingency plans to deal with the problem. The wry tone also shines through: Myfanwy is entirely scornful about supposed psychics, saying that "usually we get an irritating prophecy that will, inevitably, rhyme but not scan and that is so metaphor-laden as to render it completely incomprehensible." It's hard to make a shy bureaucrat interesting, but by the end of the book she feels like almost as much a character as the person who took her place.
This style of explanation is especially good for the Grafters, creatures who warp and dissect and manipulate normal people to produce powers that mimic the skills of the Checquy operatives-- their backstory involves centuries of rivalry and plotting, and O'Malley gives himself the space to explore things in detail instead of jamming short answers sideways into dialogue. They're quite dangerous, able to use their biological powers to subdue and sometimes reprogram even people with powers, but they're also uniquely vulnerable to Myfanwy, whose powers are based on the control of living systems and bodies. The first Myfanwy was taken from her parents when her powers were discovered by accidentally dropping several doctors to the ground, but the new one discovered what she could do by lashing out against her attackers. From that opening difference, the new Myfanwy sees her powers as a tool to be explored and used and tested, not something to use cautiously or in fear; she's very willing act publicly and try new things, especially if it will make people sit up and respect the person inside the formerly timid administrator. Irritated boldness works beautifully on her, and it makes it easy to empathize with both the confused new person and the quiet old one who was pushed aside; her newly imposing demeanor is a victory for each of them.
Several of the minor characters are also worth a nod, particularly Ingrid, Myfanwy's middle-aged secretary. The woman doesn't turn a hair at word of eldritch horrors despite having no powers of her own, and she's willing to be sarcastic once she's gotten used to her superior's new attitude. When Myfanwy worries about what to do with international visitors, Ingrid replies "accord to long-standing traditions, I perform the sacred cancellation of your other appointments and make reservations at the hallowed temple of Italian food." That dry wit continues to escalate, putting Ingrid in a position somewhere between mother and chief logistics officer. Gestalt is also great, juggling one contemptuous attitude for its fellow Rook among three male bodies and one female one while effortlessly delegating efforts and focus when each body needs it most. Lady Farrier is imposing, calling on the collective steely dignity of a century's worth of monarchs in the face of absolutely any threat. These and many others form a world of the Checquy that explains both how the country is still in one piece and why the organization needs to provide extensive therapy to everyone involved.
The red pen:
The letters from past-Myfanwy work well, but that also makes the initial adjustment period for new-Myfanwy seem more awkward. She seems to have retained her old self's organizational skills, but she fumbles very badly even when she's trying to think of excuses for something as basic as changing the way she takes her coffee. Some of these excuses are hilarious, like when she makes up a gynecologist appointment to explain her lateness and then says it was "to have my vagina checked" in an attempt to make a coworker uncomfortable and stop asking questions. When she lets the awkwardness take over instead of work for her, though, it's just annoying to read. She gets over this bump with time, but it means that it's hard to root for new-Myfanwy in places when she's being awful at the most basic of interactions in a situation that she knows is dangerous. Mimicking her former self's strategies of keeping her head down for a few weeks would have let her be just as entertainingly confused without acting in a way that could arouse the suspicion of people who are always looking for spies and infiltrators. It's genuinely odd to have no one ask more questions than they do after her complete personality shift, especially given how paranoid everyone is.
Some of the characters with whom Myfanwy becomes close are also grating. One representative of the Croatoan, the American offshoot of the Checquy, winds up working with Myfanwy during a manifestation. I wanted to be happy to see a powerful black woman, but Shantay is just...very awkwardly written. She's supposedly a Bishop, a high-ranking officer with diplomatic responsibilities, but before she's known Myfanwy for a day she's calling her "girl" and using that slightly-off syntax that tends to sound stereotypically ghetto and is very out of place for a high-ranking diplomat. When she's waiting for Myfanwy to perform a delicate magical maneuver in the middle of a house full of a fungal eldritch horror, she just stands there watching, then does her nails, kicks a goon lying on the floor, checks her mobile messages, and starts humming. This is someone who had to have excelled in both battle and diplomacy to gain her post, and while her metal-skin powers are great, Shantay plays a little too much into the sassy black friend stereotype to feel like a solid character.
The other odd presence is Bronwyn, the sister of the old Myfanwy Thomas. The Checquy is legally empowered to seize children with supernatural skills, so they took Myfanwy as soon as they tracked her down, and her parents refused to discuss it with the remaining siblings. This could have been an opportunity to tackle family issues, the cost of power, and how this new Myfanwy reacts to a sister she never properly had, but the whole arc just falls flat. Bronwyn uses tax records to track her sister down, new-Myfanwy is overwhelmed, and they talk. Myfanwy makes up lies, they go out drinking....it's the kind of thing that could have worked better in another book, one that doesn't play for the highest stakes. Bronwyn is interesting enough, but her presence adds very little besides establishing that new-Myfanwy is accepting her identity and giving her a hangover at one point in the story. Neither element needed this story to work, and Bronwyn's sequences are the dullest in the book.
All in all, I'm quite impressed by this one; it rarely falters, and the pacing doesn't settle in a predictable way. Instead, it dances between action, intrigue, and making bureaucracy interesting in a way that I wasn't aware was possible. The ending is satisfying, wrapping up a number of plotlines while leaving plenty of room for others to grow and flourish. O'Malley makes the new exasperated and stubborn Myfanwy's strength key in so many ways while crafting the victory as belonging just as much to the old one, and it's resonant in a way that very few fantasy books manage to achieve.
Prospects: O'Malley has mentioned in a few interviews that he has a sequel in the works, in addition to a few other projects, but there's no word on a title or release date yet. Drop a line here if you have rumors, because I want the sequel.
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~I can't think of a single book that I can compare to this one. It's a bit similar to the Bourne movies in terms of memory loss, but Myfanwy is a very different flavor of heroine. Check back in a few months to see if I've managed to trip over something similar, but I doubt it at this point.