Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"You're Impressed Aren't You? I'm Probably Your Hero.": A Review of Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire

Sorry it took me so long to post this. I finished this book on Sunday, but I got so engrossed in rereading the third Skulduggery Pleasant book yesterday that I didn't write a review for Playing with Fire when I was going to.

Synopsis: Valkyrie Cain--once known to the world as twelve-year-old Stephanie Edgley--has learned a great deal since beginning her apprenticeship to Skulduggery Pleasant, the well-dressed living-dead wizard-detective. But she hasn't learned nearly enough to defeat the horrors massing against her and her friends: An old foe of Skulduggery's, Baron Vengeous, is bent on bringing back to life the horrible Grotesquery--an unkillable monster assembled from the most fearsome beasts of legend.

It's up to the ingenious, fearless, and quick-witted Valkyrie and Skulduggery to stop the Grotesquery from coming fully to life. Because once the thing is alive, it will call to its masters, the evil Faceless Ones whose return will mean the end of the world.

Review: Once again, Derek Landy proves that he is worthy of much more praise than he is receiving in the States. Like the first Skulduggery Pleasant novel, Playing with Fire is funny, adventurous, fast-paced, and just plain fun-to-read.

The world is in danger once again and Skulduggery Pleasant, Valkyrie Cain (a.k.a. Stephanie Edgley), and Tanith Low have to try to save the day. A lot of book series get repetitive after a while, especially those that are about people saving the day. Landy, however, really knows how to craft his stories. I found that I liked this book even better the second time around and one of the things I liked best is that it didn't just rehash the first book.

Landy is very talented at carrying characters and plot points over from book to book. This is even more apparent in his third book, The Faceless Ones, but even this book gives the reader a good sense of this skill. He is also great at coming up with new, fun characters. In addition to the old favorites, many new characters are introduced in this book, mostly villains. While there are many baddies to choose from, my personal favorite is Billy-Ray Sanguine, a psychopathic Texan who can travel by burrowing through the ground. He's cocky and dangerous, just how I like them.

He's also very funny. During a fight with Tanith and Valkyrie, the following exchange occurs:

"'Shackles can't hold me, pretty lady. I'm immune to just about every binding spell I reckon you ever heard of, and a few more you haven't. That's what makes me special.'
'That and your psychopathic tendencies.'
'Oh, those don't make me special. They just make me fun.'" (p. 88)

The book starts out with an action scene and explodes from there. It uses the same fast-paced, almost cinematic writing to keep readers flipping pages. And this isn't a coincidence. Landy has a background in screenwriting and it shows--in a good way.

Playing with Fire also continues Landy's tradition of throwing in jokes that older readers can appreciate. My favorite is his nod to This Is Spinal Tap:

"'How about on the Evil Villain Scale? Ten being Serpine, one being Scapegrace?'
'The Baron, unfortunately, turns it all the way up to eleven.'
'Seriously? Because, you know, that's one more evil.'
'It is indeed.'" (p. 15)

Younger readers won't necessarily catch it, but older readers will get a chuckle out of it.

The banter between Skulduggery and Valkyrie is just as good in this book as it was in the last. Landy's dialogue is brilliant, which makes up for the lack of description. Some readers might find this a little annoying--he rarely gives in-depth detail about setting and, sometimes, characters--but I actually find it refreshing. One of the reasons why the books are such quick reads, I think, is that they aren't bogged down with all the unnecessary minutia that other fantasy books are. I like to visualize things in my head when I read, but sometimes I don't need to know the exact color of the third dead body from the right's eyes or how many steps lead up to a minor character's front door. Landy's strengths are dialogue, character development, fight scenes, and violence. Lots of violence.

This book also has a lot of heart to it, as do the others. The adults in Valkyrie's life, besides Skulduggery and her parents (who have no idea what she gets up to*), see that she's a young girl thrust into adult situations and they worry that she's missing out on her childhood in order to fight bad guys and save the world. Valkyrie is stubborn and doesn't want to return to her normal life knowing that she's missing out on all the fun. But she has people looking out for her, people who try to make her see reason.

Landy doesn't glide over the fact that she's putting herself in danger at such a young age, which is one thing that I like about these books that I felt the Harry Potter books were lacking. Dumbledore repeatedly lets Harry get into danger and there are very few adults in his life who are willing to step back and say, "wait a minute, this is a young boy". I found this cartoon ages ago and I thought, "Yep, this is probably exactly how it went down":

So, in conclusion, yet another powerhouse book from Derek Landy. Skulduggery Pleasant is one of my favorite characters and with each book I like him even more--in spite of his flaws and considerable lack of foresight.

Playing with Fire gets five out of five stars.

*Valkyrie uses a spell that allows her reflection to step out of a full-length mirror and live her normal, everyday life for her so that she can join Skulduggery for adventure and mayhem. The reflection goes to school, does her homework, has dinner with the family, etc. Her parents, who don't know that the magical world exists, notice that something's not quite right but associate it with her being a teenager and being moody and hormonal. And, who can blame them really? Who of us hasn't been a moody, hormonal teenager?



  1. Haha. I love that comic strip. Very funny. I always liked Snape, even when I thought he was a bad guy.

  2. I took a liking to Snape from book one and I don't really know why. I think it's because he was such a rogue element in the books. You never knew what he was going to do. I like characters who are morally gray and he's one of the grayest.

    Which is why I feel that Rowling absolutely destroyed him in the last book. It was like she had taken this really great character and made him into a lovesick emo kid. Ah well, at least I was justified in standing behind him when everyone else thought he was really on Lord Voldemort's side. I like gloating about that for some reason. :)