I picked up Stiletto because I enjoyed The Rook, Daniel O’Malley’s first novel about a supernatural government agency keeping England safe from monsters. By the middle of Stiletto, though, I wasn’t enjoying it as much–the middle is slow going, as if it could have used a bit of judicious editing (at 580 pages it could afford to lose a few). The end, though, is fabulous, and I was glad I’d kept reading.
One of the thing O’Malley could have done sooner is the title reveal. Who is the stiletto? How is the stiletto related to the rook? There’s a good answer, but it doesn’t have to be kept secret so long. In fact, I will reveal it to you right now, for your reading pleasure. The plot of the novel concerns whether a partnership between the Checquy (or as their enemies call them, the Gruwels) and the Broederschap (or as their enemies call them, the Grafters) is possible. In the end, it turns out that it might be, as a main character of the novel, a member of the Broederschap named Odette Leliefeld, is being described by her friend, a Checquy pawn:
“You’re a Pawn….A Pawn of the Checquy. You might not have taken the oath yet, but that’s what you are. You’re a tool, to be used and directed for the good of the people. Sometimes you’ll be a scalpel, cutting out disease. Sometime you’ll be a sword, and you’ll take on threats with all the strength you can muster. And sometimes, Odette, you’ll be a stiletto, a hidden weapon that slides quietly into the heart.”
The conversations about supernatural events are as wonderful as ever, like this bit of cocktail party chatter:
“The last party I was at ended very badly. And didn’t you once attend a dinner in Bhutan where everybody except you left having been rendered completely sterile?”
“And they all became allergic to rabbits,” said the lady with some satisfaction.
I really enjoy the way the author integrates his fictional world into the world of fiction as we know it. This novel concentrates on what members of the Broederschap know, her own fictional organization that was the ultimate enemy of everyone in the Checquy, the people we sympathized with in The Rook:
“In the eighteenth century, a brilliant young student from the University of Ingolstadt caught the eye of members of the Broederschap. His work with galvanism and chemistry was deemed to have tremendous potential, and they recruited him. He was given a thorough grounding in the core principles of the brotherhood’s techniques, but he chafed at their restrictions and eventually went rogue, disappearing to pursue his own research. Agents scoured the known world for him, but it was years before five Chimerae were dispatched to the Arctic, where he had constructed and animated a monstrous being using cadavers and lightning. Four of the five troops were killed, but the rogue doctor and his creation also died out there on the ice.”
The characters discuss the fact that much of what the Broederschap can do “is still illegal in most countries. We’re talking genetic engineering, harvesting organs, cloning, weaponizing human biology.” They talk about why it has to be kept secret, saying “mainstream culture is not ready for what we can do.”
I enjoy the way the author waves a hand at the science, even extending this to his characters. When a young member of the Broederschap who has just cloned a mouse is asked how he did it, we get this conversation:
“Do you have any knowledge of microbiology and cellular formatting?”
“Are you interested in learning about them?”
“God, no,” said Felicity.
“In that case, I took some mouse blood, put it in a tub of magic Grafter-slime, added some starch, and a new mouse grew out of it,” said Alessio.
There’s a great comic scene when Odette Leliefeld, the main character and a member of the Broederschap, fits a dress made of living material to her bodyguard (and Checquy agent) Felicity:
“she drew a finger briskly across Felicity’s bust and then back under. At her touch, the material gathered itself up, supporting and restraining. It occurred to a shamefully ungrateful part of Felicity’s mind that, if Leliefeld wanted to, she need merely flick her wrist, and the gown would clench about the Pawn and crush her to death. For all Felicity knew, it might then soak up all the blood and hoover up the bones.”
Some of the details we get about how various members of the Checquy and the Broederschap are deployed are fun, but the level of detail seems increasingly unnecessary as the novel goes on, like the long list of things that some sleeper units (literally, they’ve been asleep for two years and four months) have to do before they can go about the business of furthering the plot:
“A rota was worked out so that the flat’s single shower could be used as efficiently as possible. The first Chimera to emerge from the shower, an enormous man named Jan Kamphuis, was assigned the task of preparing breakfast for the others. He broke open trunks filled with a shiny agar and peeled away the gelatin to reveal perfectly preserved ingredients. Shortly, he was serving up bacon, eggs, waffles, and (him being Dutch) toast with chocolate sprinkles.”
Who uses Odette, and how and why is worth finding out, even if you do have to wade through too much detail to get there.