After the world ends, in Sharon Cameron’s 2015 dystopia, Rook, strikingly little changes. After technology is disrupted, and life is thrown into disrepair, hundreds of years pass, and eventually, France and Britain enter into their late 18th-century forms, so that Cameron can set her YA adventure novel amidst a strikingly familiar French Revolution, complete with an arranged marriage subplot, and particularly free of most of the things that make science fiction interesting.
As far as dystopias go, Rook is an interesting case––it’s a far-future work of speculative fiction that desperately wants to be a work of historical fiction, and likewise, the real nature of the setting is easy to forget. The fact that this is post-apocalyptic Earth and not the literal, actual 1700s is something Cameron rarely deigns to remind you of, what, with her novel’s engagement parties and liberal guillotine usage and total lack of technology. Some characters even charmingly trade in relics from the present day, but without breadth, care, or a sense of loss, the “Nintendo” logo engraved in an ancient piece of plastic in a prized collection is less an element of world-building and more a Pixar-style Easter egg. Her characters don’t even have access to firearms, a state of affairs behind the period she’s trying to emulate, by the decree of a post-apocalyptic non-government with no objectives, no structure, and no historical context.
Paris, now “The Sunken City” in Cameron’s novel, has a vaguely-defined upper class, but no royalty to speak of, and a municipal agenda consisting mostly of public executions of enemies of the state. There’s no concrete reason presented in the book for mobs of the citizenry to go about killing merchant families, no economic downturn or ongoing abuse of power by the rich to set this in motion, or, at least, none that sticks. Key details in this book, buried as they are under long, repetitive, over-explanatory narration, are easy to miss.
At the helm of this guillotine-happy government’s busy execution schedule is Albert LeBlanc, an absolute bloodhound of a police chief. Though he’s decidedly not the main character, he does receive an excess of page time, through Cameron’s decision to splice her novel with frequent, movie-like intercutting. This is a surprising investment, but it very nearly pays off. Cameron zooms in on her cold, calculating villain to reveal someone with even less reason and strategy than it seems, a man slavishly devoted to a goddess of fate, with such irrational fervor that it replaces ideology entirely. The thrill of the chase, however, is absent: LeBlanc isn’t competent enough to offer a real threat, and his character doesn’t expose the flaws in Rook‘s young, plucky leads as it’s supposed to. They spend the entire story plotting a daring escapade to snatch prisoners from under his nose, and the affair proves simple, and woefully easy.
The heroes go relatively untested the whole way through, denied a wider context, and thus, a meaningful cause to fight for.
Usually, in YA, when the cocky anti-hero appears, even in works that spare every expense in developing their ensemble, he gets taken down, if only a single peg, if only half a peg, if only because he is forced into humility because of a romantic subplot.
Enter René Hasard, a blunt, smirking mischief-maker, the unwanted fiancé offered to the main character Sophia Bellamy as a last-ditch effort to save her family from financial ruin. The romance that unexpectedly (“unexpectedly”) blooms between them receives the most careful and dedicated attention of any plot in the novel, but it still wavers inexplicably between complete faith and absolute distrust. Whenever things are quiet on the political intrigue front, some doubt regarding his past comes to the fray. Romantic scenes are well-written at times, but on the whole, the romance’s development is badly structured: the more Cameron keeps teasing at some dark secret, the less satisfying it is when it comes time for the happy ending, and the promise of conflict completely falls away.
Sophie also happens to be the victim of an unfortunate love polygon. Her childhood friend, Spear Hammond, is the blunt point of the love triangle. He goes about wooing her with little awareness of her actual wants, and an extremely combative attitude towards René, which puts the novel in a unique position to really interrogate those impulses, poke at them, make fun of them, maybe. The classic childhood-friend-to-lover archetype often does all these things to the female protagonist and gets no flack, from her or from the narrative, but Rook seemed poised to call Spear and his patronizing instincts into question. But his depiction, lacking in complexity and suddenly ending with a bitter smack of self-sacrifice, is probably the book’s greatest wasted opportunity. He’s of an awkward, in-between status, jumping between tolerable and reprehensible in a way that does the novel no favors. Sure, he shows a hint of having layers, but Rook doesn’t know how to handle them.
It doesn’t know how to handle Sophia, either. Like many familiar YA characters, Spear is obnoxious masculinity criticized only very shallowly. Sophia, like a fair share of teen heroines, has limited and largely superficial demonstrations of strength that have mostly to do with weaponry, but evaporate as soon as she’s really in trouble, and requires her bickering love vertices to rescue her.
Rook, even as a work of suspense, or romance, is lacking. Considering its world-building, almost everything is squandered. It isn’t a re-imagination or a re-invention of history. It’s history repeated, to underwhelming and distilled effect.