science fiction and fantasy book reviewsStiletto by Daniel O’MalleyStiletto by Daniel O’Malley

Note: This review contains some minor spoilers for The Rook, the first book in THE CHECQUY FILES series.

The Checquy, a top secret British agency of people with supernatural powers, are contemplating a peace accord and merger with their hereditary enemies, the Belgian Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen (the “Scientific Brotherhood of Physicists”), whom the Checquy dismissively call the “Grafters.” While Checquy members are born with superpowers (some of them very odd, like the ability to implode another person until their whole body is about the size of a head, a process that is invariably fatal), the Grafters get their superpowers through wildly advanced surgical modifications.

In the seventeenth century, the Grafters, on orders of the government, invaded the Isle of Wight with an eye to taking over the British Isles, and had a horrific war there with the Checquy. The Checquy eventually prevailed, but the dreadful toll of the battles and the aftermath, when the British did their best to permanently dismantle the Brotherhood, left each group with a profound hatred and horror for the other that has survived the centuries.

Now the leadership of both groups is pushing for a merger, with Myfanwy Thomas, who was the main character in The Rook, as one of the chief proponents of the merger. A group of Grafters is visiting Britain to meet and discuss the terms under which they will join with the Checquy, but the rank-and-file members by and large are still deeply antagonistic toward each other, and find the other group’s powers repugnant and its members abominations, barely (if at all) human.

Stiletto focuses on two young women, Odette Leliefeld of the Grafters and Felicity Clements, a Pawn (soldier) of the Checquy, who give this conflict its human face. Odette is part of the Grafter delegation visiting with the Checquy, and Felicity is assigned to be her bodyguard, and both are unhappy with their forced association. The personal issues between them tend to reflect the status of the merger discussions. Is it possible for them to learn to tolerate and even like one another?

It’s bad enough dealing with the bitter hatred that most of the members of each group feels for the other, but a mysterious and powerful group called the Antagonists has followed the Grafters from the European continent to England, and is trying by any means possible to kill off the merger permanently … primarily by killing off multiple members of both groups, as well as numerous British civilians who happen to be useful to their battle, or are simply in their way.

I loved the first book in THE CHECQUY FILES series, The Rook, but unfortunately Stiletto isn’t nearly as compelling a story. Its plot is more fractured and tends to drag or go off on tangents (most of which, though not all, eventually turn out to be relevant to the plot). There was, for example, a subplot involving a British citizen who suddenly develops the ability and compulsion to instantly grow huge crystals out of any hard surface, murdering several people in the process, that could and should have been left on the cutting room floor. The whole novel clocks in at nearly 600 pages, which felt overlong, and the pace often lagged. Somewhere in there, there was a really good 400 page novel.

It may seem odd to talk about believability in a novel built around superpowers, but the idea that the Grafters could develop some of the uncanny powers they had simply through biotechnology, especially beginning in the late 1400s, challenged my ability to suspend disbelief. The depths to which the Antagonists were willing to sink in their fight against the merger between the Checquy and the Grafters also strained my credulity. Intellectually I’m aware that humans can do appalling things because of deeply-held beliefs, but Stiletto never made me believe it on an emotional level.

The Rook also had the benefit of Myfanwy Thomas as its main character, with a gripping amnesia plotline, where Myfanwy, helped along by explanatory letters from her former self, is trying to find out who is attempting to murder her. In Stiletto Myfanwy has been relegated to secondary character status. Her replacements, Felicity and Odette, are sympathetic characters, but not nearly as memorable.

On the plus side, O’Malley has a fertile imagination, and this sequel displays that as well as the witty, easily readable style of The Rook. Stiletto has a dry, tongue-in-cheek type of humor that, though it’s occasionally a little forced, still spices up every page and made me chuckle several times. Additionally, as I got further into the book, the plot became more compelling, especially as several plot threads began to tie together in a way that ultimately made the story more cohesive. In the end, despite some shortcomings, it was a worthwhile and enjoyable read for me, enough to make me interested in picking up the next book in this series. If you enjoyed The Rook, it’s worth reading Stiletto, but I’d recommend that you temper your expectations.

Published June 14, 2016. In this spirited sequel to the acclaimed The Rook, Myfanwy Thomas returns to clinch an alliance between deadly rivals and avert epic — and slimy — supernatural war. When secret organizations are forced to merge after years of enmity and bloodshed, only one person has the fearsome powers—and the bureaucratic finesse—to get the job done. Facing her greatest challenge yet, Rook Myfanwy Thomas must broker a deal between two bitter adversaries: The Checquy—the centuries-old covert British organization that protects society from supernatural threats, and… The Grafters—a centuries-old supernatural threat. But as bizarre attacks sweep London, threatening to sabotage negotiations, old hatreds flare. Surrounded by spies, only the Rook and two women who absolutely hate each other, can seek out the culprits before they trigger a devastating otherworldly war.

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  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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