I have been reading a lot this year, and nearly all the books I have read have had me thinking about being used and being of use. Daniel O’Malley’s excellent Stiletto, which revisits the Checquy and it’s collection of supernatural government servants, fits right into this pattern.
For those who have not read The Rook, the background here is that Britain has a entire government agency made up of agents with mysterious powers, ranging from people who increase the fertility of those who surround them to people who are entirely made up of gas. All of them serve the British government, and are led by The Court, a group of leaders named after chess pieces. The Rook tells us the story of Myfanwy Thomas, a Rook who is trying to solve the dangerous conspiracy surrounding her violent recent amnesia. The Rook was fun and tightly plotted, and had a great heroine in Thomas, who is bright and capable and courageous. I was very much looking forward to spending more time with her in the sequel, but she is not the central character in Stiletto.
Taking place shortly after events in The Rook, Stiletto introduces us to both new members of the Checquy and the Grafters, the traditional enemy of the Checquy who now seek to ally the two groups. The negotiations between the two secret groups are at risk because of a terrorist group that is threatened by the changes to the old ways. There are also run of the mill supernatural threats to deal with, of course, with the agents of both agencies being pressed into service for the greater good, sometimes unknowingly. All of these ideas – the purpose of terrorism, overcoming mistrust, and service – are examined in the relationship between a young Grafter named Odette and an ambitious Pawn named Felicity. Both of them have been raised to hate the other, but they learn to trust and like each other. They also help each other understand their roles – they both want to serve the greater good, but resent the costs associated with being used. This is something that I have been thinking about as I read the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, so it is interesting it comes up in this much different book as well.
Like The Rook, if we were to apply the Bechdel test to this book, it would pass with flying colours. The story is dominated by women, each of whom is capable, intelligent, respected but also with a distinct personality. While there are elements of humour and each of them has been attracted to someone in the book, it is not something that drives the plot nor mars any professional or friendly relationship amongst the characters. It is an enormous relief. O’Malley is a creative writer, placing the supernatural and fantastical elements within an entirely relatable modern world, making sure that plot lines are tied up in a logical way. There are often lighter elements found here, a nice distraction from what is often a tense and dangerous situation. I have recommended this series to a number of friends, and am very eager to read the third as well.