Remember how I said that The Rook is one of my favourite novels of all time? Well, I just finished reading Stiletto, its sequel, which I think may possibly be even better.
If you’ve not already read The Rook, I highly recommend that you do so before reading its sequel. Stiletto can stand on its own, you won’t be completely lost, but it’ll be much more enjoyable for those who’ve read its predecessor – not just because you get to return to an already-familiar world and characters in the order that the author intended, but also because there’s a few references you’ll find yourself picking up on and enjoying. Also, of course, The Rook is excellent.
I’ll advise you to stop reading this review now if you want to read The Rook, as it contains some big spoilers for it. No spoilers for Stiletto though, so if you’ve read The Rook but not Stiletto, feel free to read ahead! Okay, warnings over, onto the review:
The plot and premise of Stiletto revolves around the merger-in-progress between the Checquy Group, the United Kingdom’s supernatural secret service, and the Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen (AKA the Grafters), a Belgian group of biohacking scientific geniuses who are centuries ahead of current medical technology. There’s just one hitch, though: due to an ill-fated invasion of England that the Grafters perpetrated several centuries ago, and the fact that, upon winning a basically Pyrrhic victory, the Checquy then proceeded to (try to) annihilate the Grafters, the two groups utterly hate each other.
The novel splits time between a few protagonists, but the main ones are Pawn Felicity Clements, a Checquy psychometrist and soldier, and Odette Leliefeld – a descendent of lead Grafter Ernst van Suchtlen, and surgeon extraordinaire. Odette is part of a delegation of Grafters who have travelled to London to partake in the merger negotiations, and Felicity is a standard Checquy operative who … happens to get caught up in it all.
Of course, that’s not all there is to the plot – it happens that the Grafters have been followed across the Channel by a group of mysterious foes, known only as the Antagonists, who threaten to plunge the fragile negotiations into chaos – and possibly war.
I love this book for basically the same reasons I love The Rook – the plot is thoroughly engaging and packed with action that’ll keep you turning the pages, the worldbuilding is deliciously rich, and the writing is at once unpretentious (at least in terms of high-brow pretentions) but also incredibly fun. I do admit, one might get the feeling sometimes that O’Malley quite enjoys the sound of his own voice – the humour is generally of the witty and self-indulgent kind – but honestly, so would I if I had a voice like that. As with The Rook, there’s also a fair amount of infodumping, but it all comes through in a well-integrated enough way – and is comprised of sufficiently fascinating content – that I really didn’t mind at all.
In what ways is this book better than its predecessor? Mainly because of its diversity of character perspectives. We get a lot more insight into the Grafters and their world, which is just as rich as the Checquy’s. It turns out that O’Malley is quite capable of juggling multiple perspectives cohesively and engagingly. Additionally, there’s quite a bit more in terms of character development and skillfully-drawn emotion.
Another reason I liked this book is that it does relatively well in terms of gender and ethnic diversity. It passes the Bechdel test with truly flying colours, and its two female protagonists are fleshed-out, realistically flawed, and undeniably badass – in two rather interestingly contrasting ways. There is an impressive host of ethnically diverse supporting characters, although the main protagonists are white – however, as this book is written by a white author and set in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, that’s quite understandable.
I did note that there’s little in the way of any other type of minority representation (e.g. the queer community), however I think it’s relatively forgiveable in this case, as the nature of the story (i.e. a plot-driven urban fantasy adventure containing a general lack of romance) doesn’t exactly lend itself to elaborating on identity traits that aren’t immediately obvious to the eye, or of relevance to an action-based plot.
In short, I found Stiletto a magnificently enjoyable and masterful piece of fiction. It’s got a highly readable plot, a compelling and richly-drawn world, engaging characters, a confident and witty voice, and a surprising amount of heart. I fully recommend it.