Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy


Buffy meets Dr Who meets Ghostbusters in this thrilling new book you won't want to put down!

Stephanie's uncle Gordon is a writer of horror fiction. But when he dies and leaves her his estate, Stephanie learns that while he may have written horror, it certainly wasn't fiction.

Pursued by evil forces intent on recovering a mysterious key, Stephanie finds help from an unusual source – the wisecracking skeleton of a dead wizard.

When all hell breaks loose, it's lucky for Skulduggery that he's already dead. Though he's about to discover that being a skeleton doesn't stop you from being tortured, if the torturer is determined enough. And if there's anything Skulduggery hates, it's torture…

Will evil win the day? Will Stephanie and Skulduggery stop bickering long enough to stop it? One thing's for sure: evil won't know what's hit it.

I've had Skulduggery Pleasant on my bookshelf for ages and ages.  I bought it maybe over a year ago, the first one, that is and it's taken me this long to push aside my concerns to actually sit down and read it. 

My concerns were normal ones: will I be able to suspend my disbelief that a skeleton can be a main character in a book?  How over the top will it be and will I actually like the characters?  Especially the titular Skulduggery himself. I had doubts - I loved the covers and having spoken to younger folk about the books, I suspected I may be in for a treat.

If you're a long-time reader on MFB you'll know how I am always happy to say how stupid and wrong I've been about things in the past.  This is no different.  I've wasted a year since buying the first one, when I could have been running amok with Skulduggery and Valkyrie.  But, you know what convinced me to read it?  An article by the author Derek Landy in one of the writing magazines I'm subscribed to.  I was struck by his voice and thought that if he could carry that voice across into SP, I'm being an eejit not reading it.  So I packed it into my commuting bag and hey presto, I subsequently fell for Skulduggery, Valkryie, Tannith, China and Mr. Blush, among others.

Firstly - the novel is completely over the top in the sense that it suffers from a high concept - a skeleton that is a detective, a young girl side-kick taking on dangerous minions and facing off against some truly dangerous bad guys...How would they relate? How would the author make it work?

Derek Landy makes Skulduggery work through strong characterisation, a clear sense of fun and bucket loads of sarcasm and trueisms.  Oh, let's not forget about a clever plot, interesting backstories and friends that are as dangerous to know as any enemy.

But mostly, what I loved and appreciated very much in Skulduggery Pleasant is that the main character is a girl.  Stephanie Walker who becomes Valkyrie Cain. She is definitely the fore-runner of characters like Katsa and Katniss, that's for sure.  Albeit much younger than these two very well known heroines of contemporary genre fiction, she holds her own as someone I really do want to hang out with.  When she inherits her uncle Gordon's mansion, she's quite surprised but you know, she's a pretty together kid, sensing that there is more to this than just Gordon being a bit weird.

Events conspire and she is left in the house by herself overnight - and it is then that things go a bit more than just freaky.  Someone tries to break into the house and abduct her.  They mutter about "the key" and of course, Stephanie has no idea what they're on about.  Whilst she's busy defending herself the door gets blasted off its hinges and Skulduggery Pleasant walks in, beats up and tosses out the bad guy.  She recognises him from the funeral and from the reading of the will.  She thinks there's something weird about this sharply dressed man, with his big scarf, sunglasses and hat.  When the reveal comes that SP is actually a skeleton, Stephanie takes it relatively well.  But this first introduction with the pair of them just sparks wonderfully as it's dripping with sarcasm and disbelief. 

It sets the tone of the rest of the book and the series as Stephanie convinces Skulduggery that he definitely needs her help in trying to figure out what is going on.  Who are the bad guys, what do they want, who is Skulduggery, what is the mystery about Stephanie's family and how is it that some of Skulduggery's friends are so dangerous he warns Stephanie not to talk to them?

Packed with action, Stephanie hits the ground running as SP's new side-kick.  Through her eyes were are introduced to a cast of truly gloriously named characters such as Ghastly Bespoke for instance.  As the story unfolds we learn the reason as to why Skulduggery is a skeleton and you can't help but feel for him.  The pathos is very light and we concentrate mostly on Stephanie's coming of age in this book.  We are with her as she realises that her path is different to the norm and how she was right to feel that she was different to ordinary kids at school.  But we also have great character growth in Skulduggery who only reluctantly took her on as a side-kick and in the end, he becomes one of her staunches supporters.

The camaraderie between Stephanie and Skulduggery is an absolute dream to read - they snipe and argue but it is done in a way that never becomes irritating or samey.  Another thing I loved about this is the overall tone of the book.  It is solid and systematic and it never talks down to its readers.  To my mind it's sort of accidental that Stephanie is a younger person.  And importantly, Skulduggery never ever treats Stephanie as a kid and importantly, he never turns around and says: you can't do that, because you're a girl.

I cannot be more pleased with this series.  I'm reading the second book at the moment and it picks up a few months after the events of book 1 and I am so excited to see Stephanie /Valkyrie form a tentative friendship with the amazingly named Tannith Low.

Tannith's role in the first book is one of muscle - she is a great warrior herself and takes on looking after Stephanie to a certain extent.  But again, she never actually smothers or babies Stephanie.  And it makes my little heart happy to see two very strong female characters written about in such a strong and decisive way.  I think I may love Derek Landy just a little.

As Stephanie finds out more about this shadowy dangerous world she now belongs to, she never baulks.  Like so many great female characters gone before, Stephanie keeps moving forward, undeterred by attacks by vampires and other creatures.  With Skulduggery at her side, they form a formidable team and one that the Sanctuary bosses aren't entirely sure they are keen on. 

There are still several mysteries for me to figure out - about Skulduggery and the world he inhabits and I can't recommend this first book in the series enough.  It really surprised me as the writing is just so blindingly good and well, it was a long courtship but I do love Skulduggery Pleasant.  Find the first chapter of the first book here.  I can definitely recommend this to confident readers aged 10+ and importantly, it can be enjoyed by readers of both sexes.

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