Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
Skulduggery Pleasant is no ordinary re-animated skeleton. He's a snappy dresser and he solves supernatural crimes--with the help, of course, of his 12 year old protege, Stephanie, who inherits a fortune and creepy old mansion from her horror writer uncle. This is a colorful tale (to say the least) that School Library Journal recommends for Grades 5-8.
Scepter of the Ancients is Book 1 in the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy, published in 2007 by HarperCollins. The series continues with Skulduggery #7 coming out in September.
I had a lot of fun reading this book. Here are some of the things I liked the most about it. Skulduggery himself is a lovable guy, er, skeleton and his detailed backstory as the fearless leader in a battle of good versus evil elevates him to truly heroic levels. Yes, he has no skin or flesh, but he makes up for it with guts (of the metaphorical kind). But my favorite part of him is his sardonic sense of humor. The contrast of macabre bony appearance and suave humor is hilarious. Another great aspect of Skulduggery is that, already being dead, he seems indestructible, unkillable, no matter what the various baddies in the story throw at him. If he loses a limb, he simply picks up his bones and puts himself back together again, and with all the danger Stephanie finds herself in, this is reassuring!
Stephanie is spunky and resourceful, and while she is restrained in her emotional reactions (at least from my American perspective, reading a book written by a European), she never falls into that annoying chip on the shoulder attitude that makes many a YA protagonist verge on sullen and bratty. My favorite thing about Stephanie was her ability to see absolutely weird, bizarre things, take a deep breath, and just roll with it. She has a realistic view of her abilities and her weaknesses, and she's brave. Oddly, she does not have a single kid friend who appears in the book. Since friends are SO important to this age group, that kind of jumped out at me as a gaping hole, but I'm guessing it was simply a matter of having to keep within the publisher's word count limitations.
The books presents an interesting blend of detective noir crime-solving and comedy, while bringing in a splash of high fantasy. An odd blend, but it works. In the latter vein, Landy makes interesting use of mythology. I particularly loved the bit about the Book of Names, and how everyone's got three names, and anyone who finds out your true name can control you if they know it. That was pretty powerful, I thought.
In all respects, regarding world-building, it's clear that Landy has fully developed Skulduggery's world (even from the first book in a series, which is especially impressive. Most series take a while to fully flesh out the world). No oddly hanging threads or only half thought-out reasons or consequences concerning magical things happening.You see that sometimes with magic-themed books, as if the writer sort of forgot midway through that everything has to have a point. You can't just stick something in there because it's cool; things have to tie together, and Landy doesn't miss a beat.
A positive Booklist review for this novel does mention that the level of violence may be disturbing for some young readers. That is a point well taken. I wouldn't say it's overly bloody, but when the villains make various characters suffer, Landy doesn't pull any punches. What else do you expect from a former horror movie writer? *grin* (His former career, according to his author bio.) Landy is also a blackbelt in kenpo karata (which E and I study) so the fight scenes are well done, although for me, a few of them went on a little longer than necessary, but maybe that's just me being a "chick."
The final point that I really liked about this book that I wanted to mention was Landy's voice as a writer. (As a stylistic aside, there are, thank G-d, no puns that plague so much of middle grade writing.) Landy's writing is unpretentious (yay), fast and funny, highly readable, but what jumped out most to me is a warmth that I'm very sure has something to do with his being an Irishman. With my Irish blood, I know it when I see it! I really, REALLY appreciated the absence of snark in his voice. You see a lot of that in middle grade and YA, too, the sort of (IMO) cold, deliberate snark that made Lemony Snicket famous.I know lots of people like that style, but it's not my cup of tea. I like a book with a sense of kindness underlying the writer's voice. In Landy's book, you get that--a subtle, underlying warmth that hints at a writer with a good heart, and whether it "should" be or not, that's important to me as a reader.
In all, this was a fun and unique story, perfect for a long car drive or a lazy weekend. I'll definitely keep reading in the series. Next time, E. and I will both be discussing The Sisters' Grimm, Book One, The Fairy Tale Detectives, by Michael Buckley. We're both enjoying it so far. :)
Have you read Skulduggery Pleasant and if so, did you like it? What did you like best about it? Have you read other books in the series? (Don't give away any spoilers, please! I want to be surprised about what happens!)