Published: April 2015
Sophia Bellamy lives in a world without technology where the Sunken City once was called Paris and the Commonwealth was England. But even though technology is outlawed to prevent the devastation it once caused long ago, history repeats itself. The people of the Sunken City die each day by the Blade–unless they are fortunate enough to be rescued by the Red Rook, a mysterious savior who empties the prisons and leaves only a red-tipped feather behind.
I have long enjoyed Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel series and all the melodrama it contains, so I eagerly awaited the release of Rook. This re-imagining promised something different as the summary suggested that the hero in this case would be a female. The summary did not indicate that the story occurs in a post-apocalyptic world, but that details proves insignificant to the plot–it could just as well have been set during the French Revolution or on another planet. But a female Pimpernel? That’s still difference enough.
Unfortunately, this book falls into the kinds of traps that seem specifically to await the unwary YA. The vague setting, the girl who is “different” from the rest and thus far superior to those poor females who don’t like to run around wielding swords, the love triangle (complete with, I can’t believe I am writing this, a duel over the girl); and the unwieldy page length. Let’s break this down.
The setting seems a confused choice to justify its inspiration in The Scarlet Pimpernel without making the book seem too repetitive, but I think the plot would have been better served had the book just called itself a retelling or a re-imagining and used the gender swapping as its justification for existence. The setting also creates an excuse for the characters to indulge in period dress and behaviors, from engagement balls to arranged marriages to duels. I guess we’re supposed to find it all romantic (I didn’t. You’re telling me the future is a regression back to thinking women have no physical capabilities and are mere decoration for the home? How…cynical.) However, the presence of conveniently-placed technology also allows the plot to proceed when necessary. It’s all very muddled and not explained very well, but the characters seem not to be worried about why they’re living in a post-apocalyptic world, so the impression I got was that the readers weren’t supposed to think too hard about it, either.
Sophia Bellamy as the Scarlet Pimpernel (I mean…the Red Rook) was a fun change, but I do wish the other characters had not mooned over her so much. There is a lot of dialogue about how she is different from other girls and she is willing to get dirty and she can wield a sword and she can do this and that. Sophia is pretty radical for her society, but I think the book could have presented her as admirable (risking her life to save others is, after all, a very noble thing to do) without implying that any women who like to sit inside and cook or something are just not as good. (I would have also enjoyed more female characters in general–Madame Hasard at the end and the presence of a few nearly silent servants simply does not provide a great representation. There’s the neighbor woman, sure, and Jenny Bonnard, but they are clearly secondary characters.)
The love triangle follows the trajectory of nearly all love triangles in YA: Sophia is clearly in love with Rene and clearly not in love with Spear, but Rene and Spear spend the entire book fighting over Sophia as if her will isn’t really involved. (I think some lip service is paid to her choice, but both men really thought her decision was binding or important they presumably would just accept it.) Then, of course, Spear has to end up being a kind of terrible guy because only terrible guys find their love unreciprocated. It can’t be that sometimes a woman just isn’t romantically interested in a man even if he’s noble and upright and everything. (Sophia, again, tries to head off this argument by saying something about just not liking Spear in that way–but the plot undermines the strength of this moment by having Spear then go crazy just so we know for certain that he’s not a viable love interest. Unless perhaps this is actually a comment on current events and the ways we have seen men respond to rejection with violence? It’s possible the story is more clever than I give it credit for.)
Aside from these problematic moments, I did enjoy the story. I love a good old-fashioned rescued-from-the-scaffold tale, overly dramatic though it may be. However, the story was dragged out far too long; had the page count been cut in half the pacing would have been excellent, with all the action and romance packed in and the repetitive bits (mostly about loving and then not loving and then loving and then not loving Rene…) cut out. I like Harry Potter a lot, but it does feel like ever since its release, editing for pacing has generally been disregarded.
Thankfully this YA did not fall into the trap of becoming a series, because I would never read the sequel. This adventure already took far too much of my time without giving me much in return. A female Pimpernel gave me great joy–but the rest of the story chiseled away at that advance for feminism.