Saturday, September 12, 2009

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Normally I write a review with the book I am reviewing right beside me, in case there is something I want to double-check, or quote. Today I am without book. Flying blind, as it were. The reason is this: I was faced with an opportunity to hook a child on Skulduggery Pleasant and I jumped at it. Much to the detriment of my review.

See, this girl came up to the library desk a couple days ago saying, "I need you to help me find another series to read."

"Sure!" I said. "What are some of the books you've read that you liked before?"

"Oh, Harry Potter, and the Sisters Grimm, and Lemony Snicket, and detective stuff and fantasy..."

"Ah," I said, resisting a very unlibrarianlike and possibly terrifying display of glee. "I have just the book for you. Have you ever heard of a detective by the name of Skulduggery Pleasant?"

"Um, no," she said, looking both wary and hopeful at the same time.

"He's a skeleton. He solves mysteries and saves the world, with his sidekick whose name is Stephanie, and she's awesome. It's in my bag -- I'm just finished it. It's very funny. Would you like to try it?"

Her eyes lit up at the mention of solving mysteries and saving the world, so she didn't even have to say yes and I was handing my book over. I took out the bookmark, which was almost at the end, and she was concerned that I hadn't finished it. I had, but I had read it so fast I wanted to re-read it. But I told her I was done. I wasn't about to let my sloppy reading habits prevent her from getting her hands on the book right away.

Because really, the more people who read this book, the happier I will be. It's a riot. As I explained to my young convert, Skulduggery Pleasant is a skeleton -- who walks, talks, solves mysteries, casts spells, and generally raises Cain for the other magical and magic-making denizens of modern-day Haggard, Ireland. He was a good friend of Stephanie's uncle Gordon, and Stephanie meets Skulduggery at Gordon's funeral. Several somewhat astonishing events later, Skulduggery and Stephanie team up to save the world from Skulduggery's ancient nemesis, Nefarian Serpine.

Okay. First of all, let me get my little nitpicks out of the way. And these are very small, and matters of personal taste. The names? Beyond the pale. There are reasons for this, internal to the world of the book, but I was unconvinced. Kids will likely not have much of a problem with this, but I've read too many fantasy books to find names like "China Sorrows" anything but silly. This may be the point, on reflection.

Also, I found that the mystery aspect of this novel was seriously lacking. We always knew whodunnit, and while I certainly didn't figure out all the little details, I didn't read this as a mystery. I mean, it was a mystery in the way that Harry Potter was a mystery. There were things that were unanswered questions, but it wasn't about the questions. It was about saving the world.

And finally, both good and bad was the dialogue. Good, because it was outrageous and funny and very, very clever. And bad because it was just too good sometimes. Both Skulduggery and Stephanie are super-fast wits, razor-sharp, sarcastic and generally hilarious verbal sparring partners. Which leads me to the major problem (which, for the record, I recognized immediately and chose to ignore): Stephanie is not any 12-year-old I know. She's not even any 14-year-old I know. She might be 15 and that's pushing it.

Let us recognize, however, that I am pointing out unrealistically clever dialogue and levels of maturity in a book that features a very fashionable skeleton as one of its protagonists. So... yeah, willing to ignore.

Some things I liked about Skulduggery Pleasant? As mentioned, the dialogue is snappy and super-charming. And Skulduggery himself is a really excellent character, truly good and yet unpredictable, charming and debonair and with a diamond-hard will. He's the sort I'd want on my side -- and not just because he would be hell to face as an enemy. Yet he's not invulnerable. He is arrogant, and full of anger, and impulsive; and despite the fact that he does his best to protect Stephanie he also occasionally puts her in extremely dangerous situations without providing her with the skills she needs to get out of them. And he puts himself in stupidly dangerous situations, too, which costs him.

Luckily, Stephanie is also an awesome character. Skulduggery doesn't do all the saving -- she saves him too, multiple times, which I am always happy to see in this sort of book. She's smart and though she's impulsive, she also learns very quickly from mistakes. There's one point in the book where she has a bit of an epiphany, recognizing that though she could blame others for the situation she's in, ultimately it was her choices that got her and others into serious trouble. So yes. A very mature 12-year-old. But she has to be, given that she's tossed into situations far beyond her experience or abilities, and expected to hold up her own end.

This book is jam-packed. There's really not much breathing space. There are small lulls in the action, but these are few and far between, and rarely the relaxing moment one might wish for Stephanie, Skulduggery and their allies. There are some moments that would probably be quite frightening to someone unfamiliar with the darker moments of Harry Potter, for example; there is torture and death and darkness, betrayal and complexities in even the most simplistic-seeming characters. So while this book is a fun romp, it's also got enough depth that it will appeal to adults as well as kids.

I'll stop going on about this one. Let me just point out, as a last ditch effort to get you to pick up this book, that Skulduggery won his current skull in a poker game. And if I haven't convinced you, please check out Darla's review -- she was the one who convinced me. I'm putting Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing With Fire on hold right now. And the third book is just out in hardcover! Hooray!


Phyl said...

This sounds absolutely wonderful! Exactly the sort of lighter book I love. I am soooo putting this on my TBR list! I am jumping up and down in happy anticipation.

And how very good of you to give the girl the book right away.

Unknown said...

Phyl - So glad I could add to the list ;) I'm looking forward to hearing your take. It's an awesome romp. Have fun!

Ana S. said...

Between you and Darla, I'm more than convinced that I need to get my hands on this as soon as possible. The dialogue being too clever is definitely something I can overlook :D

Unknown said...

Nymeth - Yes, snappy dialogue is not a terrible burden on the reader, I must say!

Jill said...

Ack! I can't believe how far behind I am in my blog reading! How did I miss this review? I'm soooo glad you like Skulduggery, and I love the story about how you gave it to that reader. I hope she gets as hooked as I am. :-D

Unknown said...

Darla - I can say for sure that she did, since I did notice that the second (and now the third!) books were checked out on her name faster than I could get holds on them. I was okay with this, especially since I haven't managed to get around to reading either yet...

Jill said...

I'm happy to hear that! :-)