The paradox of book reviews is that it’s hard to know whether you’d be interested in a book unless you know something about it first; but quite often a review tells you more than you’d want to know so you can really enjoy the book properly. It’s like watching a movie preview: without seeing a preview, you might not have any desire to see a movie. But with the amount that some previews show, you no longer need to see the actual movie after all.
That said, one nice thing about the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy is that it’s written for young adults (I’d say tweens and teens), so I figure most of you reading this GeekDad blog aren’t in that age category. But even so, first I’ll try to give you a feel for the books without giving anything away, and then if you’re still not sure you can read past the spoiler alerts. The books, originally published in Ireland, are also available in the United States from HarperCollins, and the third book in the series was just released September 1. Since I was not familiar with the series before, the publisher sent me a few books so I could check them out for myself.
The first three books form a trilogy of sorts: Scepter of the Ancients, Playing with Fire, and The Ancient Ones. It’s a fantasy series, with magic playing a big role. But it’s not a straightforward fantasy series, either: there’s a lot of humor, particularly with the title character, otherworldly detective Skulduggery Pleasant, who has a very dry sense of humor and an overdeveloped ego. The other main character, Stephanie Edgley, is twelve years old in the first book, and it’s through her eyes that we see most of the action. Still, I would say the characters and situations in the books would appeal to both boys and girls.
So, a pre-teen protagonist who discovers an entire hidden world of magic … sounds a little familiar, right? But really, the similarities to the world of Harry Potter kind of end there: there are fewer incantations and no wand-waving, and Landy dives into the battles and action pretty quickly. Still, Landy also readily acknowledges his debt to J. K. Rowling:
This may be controversial, but I think every children’s writer of the past eight years owes a large debt to JK Rowling. She transformed the children’s book market into something massive, she got children reading in huge numbers, and she made it acceptable for adults to read a kid’s book. Without Harry Potter, I wouldn’t have seen children’s books as a viable career move, and so I would have tried to shove Skulduggery into some other framework where he wouldn’t have fit.
Stephanie is a pretty strong-willed character, and it’s really her interactions with Skulduggery that set this book apart from other fantasy series. Neither of them is really impressed with authority for authority’s sake, and they share some fun bantering throughout the book. It’s a little more Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Twilight. Since my own kids are still too young for the series, I also passed the books on to Carissa, a local high schooler who loves to read. She gave it a thumbs-up after reading the first volume over a weekend, and is interested in continuing with the series.
In short: if you like fantasy for young adults, with a healthy dose of anti-conformity, this is a promising series to check out. Now, on to the actual details about the books!
The first volume, Scepter of the Ancients, sets the stage, introduces the characters, and then throws them into the thick of an evil-versus-good battle which results in pretty heavy casualties. Stephanie Edgley inherits most of the estate from her uncle Gordon, who wrote all sorts of fantasy novels that (of course) turned out to be largely based on fact. Skulduggery Pleasant is a good friend of Gordon’s, a detective, and … a living skeleton. With a keen fashion sense. (It’s a long story.) While he doesn’t really want a twelve-year-old tagalong at first, Stephanie proves her mettle and eventually becomes his partner in fighting evil.
The book is pretty well-written and after the initial set up Landy is good about keeping the plot flowing, so I didn’t get bored with the story. There were also plenty of betrayals and twists to keep you guessing. My biggest complaint, really, was some of the absurd names: Skulduggery himself, Ghastly Bespoke, Nefarian Serpine… but as it turns out these are all “taken” names that people have chosen for themselves, so it makes at least a little bit of sense. But, really, an evil sorcerer named Mevolent?
Playing with Fire continues the story, fleshing out the characters a little more and filled with more action and excitement. But in the third book, Landy ups the stakes by killing off a key character:
The first two books are largely self-contained, but now that the story has developed into the series I wanted, I feel more comfortable giving readers little jolts, just to keep them on their toes. Shadowy figures are revealed and readers will learn who’s been “pulling the strings” behind the scenes.
I understand that Landy is working on a second trilogy, so we can expect to see more of Skulduggery in the future. The series has also been optioned by Warner Bros. and is in development, scheduled for 2010. (Although, this is Hollywood, so it’s still pretty early to say for sure.)