Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Since We're All Going to Die Horribly, What's There to Be Worried About?": A Review of Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant

I have my friend Maya to thank for my addiction to Skulduggery Pleasant. She had a friend in Ireland that she'd met through the LiveJournal community who raved about it and when Maya and I checked out the website, I knew I had to read it for myself.

I had mentioned before my strange affinity for the anthropomorphic personification of Death, but what I didn't mention was that I enjoy the idea of skeletons as characters in general. This skeleton, Skulduggery Pleasant, wears tailored pin-stripe suits, is a detective, and drives a Bentley. I'm pretty sure he's the winningest skeleton character ever conceived.

This is Skulduggery's car: a 1954 Bentley R-Type Continental. 

I just finished rereading the first book in the series--there are currently five books, but Landy just announced that the sixth book is off to the editors--and without further ado, here is my review of it.

Synopsis: Meet Skulduggery Pleasant: ace detective, snappy dresser, razor-tongued wit, crackerjack sorcerer, and walking, talking, fire-throwing skeleton--as well as ally, protector, and mentor of Stephanie Edgley, a very unusual and darkly talented twelve-year-old. These two alone must defeat an all-consuming ancient evil. The end of the world? Over his dead body.

Review: I cannot say enough good things about this book--or the rest of the series. Skulduggery came onto the scene toward the end of J. K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter series and was, I think, very much disadvantaged in bookstores because of this. This goes especially for the United States where, today, only three of the five novels are available. While I am a huge Harry Potter fan--hell, I have a Dark Mark tattoo--I believe that Derek Landy's unique and imaginative books are getting the shaft as far as recognition is concerned.

The first book in the series, simply titled Skulduggery Pleasant (although it was renamed Scepter of the Ancients in a later publishing), is the story of Stephanie Edgley, a stubborn, intelligent, and independent twelve-year-old girl who dreams of finding adventure, excitement, and an escape from her dull life in Haggard, Ireland. She finds all of these things and more after the death of her beloved best-selling author uncle leads her to meet Skulduggery Pleasant, an old friend of Uncle Gordon's who is, to say the least, a bit on the different side.

She is thrown into a dangerous and exciting adventure with Skulduggery to stop Nefarian Serpine, an evil sorcerer, from carrying out his latest and most nefarious deed. Along the way she meets Ghastly Bespoke, a deformed tailor who can box better than Ali; Tanith Low, who wields her sword against evil; China Sorrows, the beautiful but not-to-be-trusted woman who runs a library full of magical knowledge; and a whole host of other just as interesting characters, both good and evil.

One of the things that I love most about this book is the fact that its main female characters are strong, independent, and they don't care what people think about them. If I were a father, I would prefer my daughters read books like these, books in which the self-worth of the female characters isn't wrapped up in whether or not they have a boyfriend and where their concerns go much deeper than what they're going to wear to prom. I feel that, too often, female characters in fiction--even if they are the main characters--become shadows of a what a woman can truly be. They are not role models; they aren't even particularly well-written. They're just shells. Landy's female characters, on the other hand, are dynamic and they can hold their own.

There is so much more to enjoy about this book, however. It is fast-paced, action-packed, and funny. Really, really funny. Laugh-out-loud, side-splittingly funny.

A lot of the humor comes from the banter between Skulduggery and Stephanie. They are both stubborn and bitingly sarcastic and this is, I think, one of the primary strengths of their exchanges. Even though they have just met and are, at least where Skulduggery is concerned, reluctantly working together, their dialogue feels as if they have been crime-busting partners for years, like a good buddy cop movie (if such a thing exists). They push each others' buttons and the reader can't help but want more.

One of my favorite exchanges comes after Skulduggery's car is totaled and Stephanie sees his replacement car--a canary yellow hatchback.

"'When will the Bentley be fixed?'
'That's the nice thing about living in a world of magic and wonder: Even our most extreme car repairs happen in less than a week.'
She glared at him. 'A week?'
'Not a week,' he said quickly. 'Six days. Sometimes five. Definitely four. I'll call him, tell him I'll pay the extra...'
She was still glaring.
'Day after tomorrow,' he said quietly.
Her shoulders sagged. "Do we really have to ride around in this?'
'Think of it as an adventure,' he said brightly.
'Why should I do that?'
'Because if you don't, you'll just become really, really depressed. Trust me.'" (p. 137) 

Landy is amazing at crafting dialogue. He is also incredibly talented at creating "a world of magic and wonder." While there are many books out there that feature magic and evil deeds being thwarted by the good guys, Skulduggery Pleasant doesn't read like any of the ones that I've read before. It's new and refreshing and wonderfully dark. From practically the first page the reader is whisked away into a dark and dangerous world in which even the good guys have questionable pasts and major flaws that they need to work through in order to succeed.

This is a book that both kids and adults will enjoy. I like to think of it as the literary version of a cartoon from the 1990s. There were a lot of cartoons that were geared towards kids but that understood that parents would probably be forced to watch them too. So they would throw in some things here or there that were sort of (or, in some cases, wildly) inappropriate for children but that would soar over their heads and make them wonder why their parents were laughing so much. Now, this book isn't inappropriate by any means, but it does include a few jokes that older generations can appreciate more, such as:
"You know, I met your uncle under similar circumstances. Well, kind of similar. But he was drunk. And we were in a bar. And he vomited on my shoes. So I suppose the actual circumstances aren't overly similar, but both events include a meeting, so..." (p. 46).
There's an even better example in the second book, Playing with Fire, in which a nod is made to This Is Spinal Tap, but I'll be talking about that in my review of that book.

Overall, I love this book and have since I first read it four years ago. I bought it shortly after it came out in the U.S. and when I found out it was to be a series, I felt like a little boy on Christmas morning. The book is smart, funny, exciting--everything a fantasy book should be--and Landy is an incredibly talented writer. I'm giving Skulduggery Pleasant five out of five stars.


PS: I've added Derek Landy's blog to the left sidebar if anyone's interested in checking him out.


  1. Hehehaha. Dark mark tattoo...I don't believe you.

  2. It actually exists. No lie. When I can find my camera I'll post photographic evidence of its existence.