Monday, March 7, 2016

Down the Stacks #24: Skulduggery Pleasant

This week on Down the Stacks, I’ve returned to the Young Adult section of the library to pick up an action-packed, hilarious, and fearlessly dark little fantasy series called Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy.  It’s got magic, mystery, sarcasm and dry humor, and a smattering of eldritch horror.  Come, check it out.

The Skulduggery Pleasant books take place in and around Dublin, Ireland in the 2000s.  The first book (which may bear the subtitle “Staff off the Ancients” depending on the edition) opens with the sudden death of Gordon Edgely, a bestselling author of dark horror novels.  At Gordon’s funeral, and later at the reading of the will, his 13 year-old niece Stephanie spots a strange, extremely thin man wrapped up in a long coat, gloves, hat, sunglasses, and scarf despite it being the height of summer - a man that Gordon apparently knew and included in his will just to dispense some cryptic advice.  A man with the name of Skulduggery Pleasant.  Stephanie winds up inheriting Gordon’s estate and book royalties.  When Stephanie and her mother go to look over the mansion, car trouble and a rainstorm lead to Steph spending the night alone in the house, which she’s more than cool with until a strange man breaks in looking for a key and Skulduggery Pleasant shows up to fight the intruder off and reveal that he - Mr. Pleasant, is in fact a skeleton.  A fireball-throwing, gun-toting skeleton.
Thus Stephanie Edgely is plunged into an underground world of sorcerers that her bloodline makes her a part of.  Steph tags along with Skulduggery on his investigation into Gordon Edgely’s death, becomes his apprentice, and helps him foil several plots revolving around ancient gods straight out of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Magic in Skulduggery Pleasant is varied but quite well-defined.  Skulduggery divides sorcerers into Elementals - those who use the classic four elements to fight and move about - and Adepts - those with other skills, but later books reveal that “Adept” is too general a term, as there are Necromancers, Teleporters, gravity manipulation, “science magic,” and a wide range of magic items out there.  Names have power in this world, and so Sorcerers take on new names to protect themselves against control.  Due to this fact and a common trait of humanity, most characters in the books have over-the-top names like Ghastly Bespoke, Murder Rose, and Skulduggery Pleasant.  Most Sorcerers now live under the rules of national Sanctuaries led by small elected councils, but a long time ago there was a great war between the nominally “good” sorcerers and a cabal that worshipped the terrifying Faceless Ones and sought to return them to Earth from their prison dimension.  A few members of that cabal still alive - as magic makes sorcerers a very long-lived and slow-aging lot - and make up the primary antagonists of the trilogy.
As to characters, Stephanie Edgely, or Valkyrie Cain to use the name she takes on, is the main protagonist.  Although new to the magical underground and thus naive about a lot, she’s a strong-willed teenager with a bit of a morbid bent, a lot of snark, and the constitution necessary to get into fistfights with full-grown adults and survive and to witness unpleasant deaths.  Following Skulduggery’s lead, she’s an Elementalist with a focus on throwing fireballs and using the air to push things away or launch herself into the sky.  She neatly avoids the common dilemma of how to keep her new life a secret from her mild-mannered, non-magical parents while not falling behind in school through the use of a spell that creates a doppelganger out of her mirror reflection that can carry on her everyday life and transfer its memories to Valkyrie when dismissed.  That’s the most clever solution to the “secret double life of the teenage superhero” that I have ever seen.
Skulduggery Pleasant is a great mentor to Valkyrie if only because his sense of humor works perfectly with hers.  While he takes the job of teaching Valkyrie about the mechanics and dangers of the magic world seriously, he is not above taking advantage of her inexperience to tease her with tall tales or trading snarky banter about his ego and her teenage rebellion tendencies.  Underneath the jokes, however, Skulduggery is deadly serious about his job as a detective, especially when the Faceless Ones might be involved, and does not suffer foolish politicians gladly.  Others accuse him of being too driven by rage or revenge, too determined to see dark conspiracies behind every mysterious death, and too irresponsible about dragging a teenage magical neophyte around with him, but his paranoia about the Faceless Ones tends to prove justified.  He does put Valkyrie into a lot of dangerous situations, but half the time that’s because she insists on being involved.
Of course, like any good detective who has little regard for The Book, Skulduggery has a list of allies outside official Sanctuary channels, some more reliable than others.  First among them is Tanith Low, a young-looking, gravity-defying swordswoman who usually operates in London but pops over to Ireland when Skulduggery needs back-up.  Tanith’s magic seems limited to letting her run on walls and ceilings, undoing locks, and strengthening doors against attack, but she makes good use out of all of it.  Tanith is an amusing side character who strikes up an early friendship with Valkyrie before officially joining the team, but falls out of focus a bit in the third book.
Ghastly Bespoke is a tailor and boxer who was literally born ugly - as in face-is-a-mass-of-scars ugly - due to his mother being cursed while pregnant.  He is Skulduggery’s tailor, and makes Valkyrie a set of clothes with protection magic woven into them.  His boxing skills make him formidable into combat, but he doesn’t see a lot of action between his tailoring job and turning himself into a statue for a couple years to avoid dying in an impossible fight.
China Sorrows is technically an ally of Skulduggery, although her motives are always selfish.  China is a collector of rare magical texts and possesses an unnatural beauty that can make anyone fall in love and willing to do anything for her, a fact that she exploits mercilessly to expand her collection at the lowest cost possible.  China is the center of the best information network in Ireland’s magical community, so Skulduggery often goes to her looking for leads on the latest looming disaster.  For all her selfishness, China is generally quite helpful to Skulduggery because the shadows he chases tend to try and wrap her up in their plots as well.
Skulduggery’s villains tends toward the cliche Evil Overlord-wannabe model, but they pull it off with such grandeur and style it’s hard not to enjoy them.  First is Nefarian Serpine, a sadistic individual with a literal Red Right Hand of Death who personally killed Skulduggery back in the day (how the skeleton came back as a skeleton is mystery no one has yet solved), and seeks the Scepter of the Ancients, a weapon that can destroy even the indestructible.  Next is Vengous, who seeks the Necromancy-charged armor of a former fellow cabal leader in order to grant life to an abomination capable of releasing the seal on the Faceless Ones.  Last is the mysterious Batu, who’s orchestrating the murder of Teleporters for some dark purpose.  The leadership of the Sanctuary, while not explicitly evil, is prone to being obstructive to Skulduggery’s efforts or infiltrated by spies.  Sometimes both at once.
The Skulduggery Pleasant books are a rare treat to read.  The sarcasm-based humor is spot-on.  The action is detailed and pulse-pounding with no shying away from gruesome injury.  The books are short, but full of action; not a chapter goes by without significant plot advancement or the bad guys successfully moving the goalposts for our heroes.  The characters have depth, if not much significant growth; the stories are more about the plot than the characters.  The world is well-crafted and complex with a long and important history, a wonderful variety of magic talents, and cultures we’ve only scratched the surface of so far.  f the books suffer from anything, it’s probably the awkwardness of a main character leading a double life which characterizes these kinds of “magic masquerade” stories.  Valkyrie’s “normal” life is touched on only briefly, and if there’s any crisis impending from Val relying on her reflection so much it hasn’t yet come to head.  That bugs me a little, but that does make another reason I’m hoping the series isn’t over yet.
No matter how old you are, if you like fast-moving plots, engaging and funny characters, and a bit of macabre humor, then Skulduggery Pleasant is right up your alley.

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