Book review: Stiletto, Daniel O’Malley

Do you love seriously weird books? A former roommate turned me on to Daniel O’Malley’s first book, The Rookwhich was weird and hilarious and a little gross and seriously delightful, and his second, Stiletto, is equally excellent. And if you’re tired of me reviewing YA all the time and want to hear about some grownup books already, well, you’re in luck, because Stiletto is a grownup book, and it’s some rollickingly delicious fantasy.

If you haven’t read The Rook, you’ll still really enjoy Stiletto: They’re set in the same world with many of the same characters, but they follow different people, and you can puzzle things out well enough. However, you should totally read The Rook first anyway, because it’s a great book. It opens with our lead character waking up surrounded by bodies with no idea not only of how she got there, but who she is, and it only goes downhill for her from there. In it, O’Malley establishes the world of the Checquy, a mysterious shadowy secret service organisation that’s responsible for handling any…weirdness that hits British shores.

And there’s a lot of weirdness, starting with Checquy agents themselves, who are all named after pieces of a chess set. They can read your minds, turn invisible, transform into weird substances, and do all kinds of bizarre stuff, and the organisation has found a place for all of them. In fact, it’s responsible for collecting all the weird little children of Britain to bring them into the fold, train them, and put them to work as secret agents when they’re old enough.

With Stiletto, the Checquy is negotiating a tense and complicated peace treaty with the Grafters, an ancient organisation that’s made incredible advances in medicine. The Grafters aren’t supernatural in the slightest, but they’ve figured out how to extend life technically indefinitely, and how to use implants and surgery for everything from modifying your appearance for fun to being able to perform microsurgery without specialised equipment.

The Grafters hate the Checquy because they view the agents as creepy unnatural monsters who should be eradicated, especially since they beat them six ways from Sunday in a disastrous military escapade. The Checquy hates the Grafters because all that surgery is weird and kind of gross, but also because the Grafters invaded England centuries ago, killed a bunch of people and did really unpleasant things, and had to be soundly put down. This is an obvious recipe for successful, calm, productive negotiations between two groups of people, especially when you throw in a mysterious and confusing rogue group that is absolutely determined to derail the negotiations.

Which leaves us with a resentful Checquy pawn assigned to guard a high-ranking Grafter, teaming up with Rook Myfanwy Thomas to figure out what the heck is going on and how to stop it. As the three work together, they’re forced to rethink their preconceptions about their organisations, each other, and the world at large, because there’s some extra unusual weird stuff happening all around them, like giant flesh cubes and living houses and spontaneous eruptions of crystals that kill people.

Obviously, I’m a fan of fantasy, so I was destined to love these books, but I really like weird fantasy, especially when it integrates an element of the macabre and honestly kind of gross. O’Malley does that really well with his books — they aren’t horror, and they aren’t playing grossness for shock value, but they integrate it in a really organic way that is absolutely thrilling. These books are also delightfully dry, with the kind of snappy, sharp humour that I adore. There’s something very British about them, despite the fact that O’Malley isn’t even British.

This is a text in which people perform surgeries in hotel bathrooms, stand around drinking tea in the midst of horror, commandeer ridiculous vehicles to attend crime scenes, and use lies, deception, and layers of craftiness to accomplish their goals. It’s like a vision of everything that a secret service agency should be and most probably isn’t, and I love it.

Though not necessarily intended as some sort of complex social commentary, the Grafters really do come with some loaded and interesting discussion. They’re performing incredibly advanced and amazing medicine, and using it for really cool body modification. The resistance to their practices from the British is rooted in dark memories of a horrific mutual past, but it also reminds me a little bit of the squick and unease people have around both body modification and people who need extensive medical intervention to stay alive — so much of that intervention is, at its core, just another form of body modification, even if it seems a little bit weird to think of it that way.

Members of the Checquy have what I can only describe as born this way natural monster pride, and they’re deeply unsettled at the sight of people who have modified themselves to be able to do weird and amazing and cool and wonderful things. On the flip side, the Grafters find them weird and barbaric and freakish because of the supernatural traits they’re born with and carry innately as part of themselves, even though outsiders would probably be horrified by both groups. Does it matter if your poisonous spines were implanted or grew naturally within you? If the ability to totally change the shape of your face is something you were born with, or something you achieved through body modification?

Image: Rook, Josh Schipper, Flickr