Title: Rook Di Goo
Author: Jenni Sauer
Genre(s): fiction, sci-fi, fairytale retelling
Length: 373 pages
Published: June 17, 2020
Years ago, I took a writing course where we used fairytales as our source material for various academic-style papers and creative writing exercises. Apart from Bluebeard, my favorite of those tales was Cinderella—not only for how many different versions exist across time and cultures, but because a wealth of interesting themes reside at its core. It’s the sort of base-line story that can take on life regardless of time period, genre, or how heavily an author may draw upon it (whether it’s a full-blown retelling or simple draws upon it for inspiration). It’s no surprise, then, that a military, sci-fi Cinderella retelling in space piqued my interest. Granted, I’m always a bit apprehensive with books marketed as YA (Young Adult) or NA (New Adult); retellings are also hit-or-miss for me, especially when they lean more toward being literal (blame that on my apprehension with things like remakes and fanfiction). But the synopsis—and the fact that I’d been following the author on Instagram for a while—made me too curious to pass up the opportunity to beta read for Rook Di Goo. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m glad I took that chance.
Rook Di Goo follows El (Cadet Elis) as she boards the Aderyn, a run-down spaceship manned by an unusual yet welcoming crew, after defecting from the military. She isn’t the only one with secrets, however, and when she discovers a plot to undermine her home planet of Liosa, she has to decide whether to risk country in order to keep running from her mistakes or risk her safety—and newly-found friends—in order to save her country.
Sauer has a style of writing that is, from my experience, unique. RDG is written in personal 3rd person, so while the narrator takes a very broad view when describing events and details, there are also moments of internal dialogue either added in or woven into the prose itself. The end result is prose with the conversational qualities of 1st person without the constant stream of consciousness (and a bit more objectiveness) that comes with it. This style also lands somewhere between an impersonal, objective narrator and a narrator who is practically a character of their own, giving the story a hint of classic literature without attempting to mimic it. It’s a bit difficult to describe, so here’s an example from page 4:
“She was a soldier. She’d made a vow to her planet, swearing it on her life—rook di goo. There was no room for anything else in her mind.
But it was a game, she told herself, just a fun game and nothing more. She’d indulge in the fantasy a moment before she came back to reality.
Obviously, she would want to go somewhere that didn’t have an alliance with Liosa because that would mean there were extradition agreements. So that ruled out three planets.
The Federation seemed like the best choice, though the rulers were elected officials in a democracy rather than inheriting the title through a monarchy, and that seemed strange to her. But if that was the price she had to pay, so be it.
But which planet within the Federation was another matter altogether.”
We get to see a lot of El’s (the protagonist’s) thought process, in spite of the fact that it’s in third person and isn’t utilizing the standard italicization of a character’s thoughts. And personally, I really enjoyed that method of understanding El—it’s the best of 1st and 3rd person at the same time.
More broadly, Sauer’s writing style is very much focused on the characters—which consequently means less time spent with the setting or action scenes. Because I enjoy both of those things, it left me wanting more information about the different planets visited, the appearance of characters, the specifics of what happened during the height of the plot. However, the narration is so engrossing—and easy to dive into (in part because of short paragraphs and excellently-timed dialogue)—that those extra details don’t feel necessary in order to understand and enjoy the story.
Speaking of characters: if I had to pick the best aspect of Rook Di Goo, I’d have to pick the cast. Sauer did an excellent job of not only making each of the main crew stand out as individuals, but making each of them intriguing and complex. They truly behave like people, with strengths, weaknesses, contradictions, struggles, and conflict with each other that makes sense. More than that, even, the characters have lingered with me long after I finished reading the story (which often isn’t the case, even with my favorite books!).
El is a perfect example—and how fitting, since she’s the star of this book. She has incredible grit and courage, especially under pressure, yet when it comes to the largest issues in her life and her deepest traumas, her instinct is to run away from them; she can read people and even manipulate situations in order to get out of a quick bind, yet there are moments when her stubbornness and agitation shut down her ability (and desire) to communicate, or instances where she’s too out of her element to socialize well. She’s smart and intuitive, yet she miscalculates and makes mistakes. She can take charge and come up with plans of action, but also hates that she has to be the one to come up with most of the plans. She loves her country and harbors an underlying idealism, yet has a tendency to be judgmental, cynical, and harsh on herself even in success. Each of her strengths has a weakness, and each of her weaknesses has the potential for strength—and though she isn’t perfect by the end, she changes for the better. Perhaps this comes across as a bit biased, but she was my favorite character in this story from page one, and I don’t think that’s just because of personal preference.
The rest of the cast are also well-written, and play off of one another in a way that’s delightful to read. Captain Behnam (Leiv) has an air of secretiveness to him, the collected confidence to face down those who outrank him, and an almost perpetual scowl, yet his concern for others and loyalty to those he cares about is apparent and steadfast. Trapp brings a level of levity and mischief to the crew, but even though his role tends to be more in the background (quite literally piloting the ship), his relationships with Leiv and Ginger have a depth to them that grounds his character. Ginger, the ship’s medic, provides a listening ear, a warm smile, and good advice as readily as she hands out warm cups of tea, yet her quiet strength and desire to support those around her are their own form of stubborn optimism as she deals with problems of her own. And Gibbs, who at first seems set up to be the typical loyal soldier to foil El’s desertion, proves to be a far more humble, understanding, and competent man than anyone first expects.
If there was one “weakness” in this area, it would have to be the villain—who, for spoiler reasons, I can’t discuss. They don’t have the same strong presence as the rest of the cast, and for some that may be a drawback. However, I didn’t find this to be much of an issue because a) the story is ultimately about El’s character arc more than the action of the plot, and b) the mystery aspect of the plot would’ve been undermined if the villain had more of a presence earlier on in the story.
Although RDG’s characters are the star of the story, that doesn’t mean that the plot is weak or ill-devised. In fact, the scenes are well paced, the foreshadowing and twists carefully crafted, and the resolutions satisfying—and although I would have liked more time for action scenes, there are so many of them throughout the novel that it’s hard to feel deprived of the more military, sci-fi elements. I can’t include more details because I don’t want to spoil the plot entirely, but whatever flaws might exist within the structure of the story are minor compared to how well RDG is written and how easy it is to get sucked into the story.
One of the fun parts of sci-fi is the otherworldly elements, and RDG has many in regards to setting: the Aderyn, where much of the story takes place, and several planets mentioned and/or visited (Liosa, Taras, Alvar, Cyrene, Resna, Philosanthron, etc.). Sauer does a good job spacing out the various cultures to where a) the world feels lived-in, rather than filled with info dumps, and b) it’s not difficult to keep the different planets and people groups separate (or at least, it’s as easy as it can be). However, this is where I have the most critiques, because many of the planets visited by the characters ended up feeling similar to one another (apart from Philosanthron). Some of this is, of course, due to their business on these planets taking them to similar sorts of shops or bars, but there were missed opportunities to give sensory details to make the locations stand apart from each other more. For those who find settings less important or potentially overwhelming, I doubt this will be a problem, but for those like me who really love those elements, it may feel a bit lackluster in those chapters where new worlds are introduced.
However, one element of the setting that is excellent are the Cinderella-inspired elements dropped throughout the story. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t tend to enjoy retellings that lean too heavily on their source material, and RDG, to me, is the perfect way to write one that avoids doing that. If you didn’t know RDG was a Cinderella retelling, you wouldn’t notice—instead, you’d read about a space cadet who runs away from duty and gets caught up with the crew of a space ship and a plot against her home country. That alone is an intriguing and original story. However, for those who are familiar with the original fairytales, there are elements throughout the character arcs, plot points, and setting that harken back to them. For instance, doves show up in several places, harkening back to their use in the Grimm version of the fairytale; the phrase “rook di goo,” also from the Grimm tale, is used as an oath in Liosi culture; and of course, there are balls with dances and fancy dresses. And these are only the more obvious ones. It’s almost like having little hidden treasures to find, but they also don’t dominate the story to where you have to understand them in order to enjoy the book.
RDG has little to no objectionable content. El is a soldier, and she and other characters get involved in several fights where people are shot (and sometimes killed); there are discussions of what happened and is happening during the war. However, the way these scenes are written don’t linger on said violence. There’s no cursing and no sexual content (unless you count one character faking a pregnancy for a few minutes, or pretending to be going to make out with someone during a party). One character has PTSD and their struggles are clearly shown.
Since my first read of RDG was over a year ago (and it was, technically, of a draft rather than the finished product), I decided to reread it right before making this review so the story and characters would be fresh in my mind. Not that I really needed that much of a refresher: this story has lingered with me since I first read it, in spite of it not being my “usual genre” and in spite of the few flaws that won’t let me rate it 5/5 stars. El in particular is a character I truly enjoy reading about, and would love to read more about in the future; every time I sit down to read one of Sauer’s books, I get pulled into the delightful quirks of her writing style and the characters who seem so real from the moment they step onto the page. Isn’t that what makes a story great? It’s those reasons that Rook Di Goo has wormed its way into my favorite’s list among The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot and True Grit and Till We Have Faces. I still rate it 4/5 stars, and it might stand out against all the old spines and 5/5 star ratings, but a book becomes a favorite not because of perfection, but because of meaning and skillful crafting and personality that stick with you long after you close the final page. And I know the crew of the Aderyn will stick around in my mind for a long while.