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Skulduggery Pleasant: A Modern Fantasy for Modern Readers

Skulduggery Pleasant coverSkulduggery Pleasant is a sharp dresser, a detective, a wizard, and, in addition to being rather charming, he has “a voice so smooth, it could have been made of velvet.” The only thing that keeps Skulduggery from being the perfect man is that he’s not exactly a man: he’s a living skeleton. He is also the main character in Derek Landy’s debut novel, Skulduggery Pleasant (2007).

Despite sharing his name, the novel does not actually start with Skulduggery. It starts with Stephanie Edgley and the death of her favorite uncle, Gordon. Stephanie was Gordon’s favorite niece which is why, at the age of twelve, she is named sole benefactor of his significant estate. That’s when the trouble really starts and everything changes for Stephanie.

Enter Skulduggery, magic and Nefarian Serpine, one of the best villains seen in recent fantasy novels. Stephanie refuses, much to Skulduggery’s dismay, to stay out of the dangerous world of magic and becomes an apprentice of sorts as the two investigate Gordon’s death and its connection to an old (literally ancient) foe trying to tip the balance toward evil. For good.

This story might sound vaguely similar to other fantasy/action plots. But it’s not. Landy borrows some elements from other popular children’s fantasies, perhaps most obviously from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” trilogy.

Like Le Guin’s keystone work in the genre (A Wizard of Earthsea first published in 1968), Landy focuses on what he describes in the novel as “the quieter course” for magic: Elemental magic. What that means, basically, is the wizards here don’t use wands and Latin spells. Instead, the power comes from the air, fire, water and earth–but earth magic is defensive and “purely for use as a last resort.”

The power of naming also plays an important factor here, much in the same way it did in A Wizard of Earthsea (and even perhaps in The Namesake although the power there was much more figurative to say the least). Everyone has three names. The one they are born with, the one they are given, and the one that they take. If you know a person’s true name (the one they are born with) you can control them absolutely. But there’s no need to worry because a taken name seals the given name, protecting it. True names need stronger protection, a fact that becomes more important as the story progresses.

This truly modern fantasy is set in contemporary Ireland, which is where Landy lives. The narrative is modern and has a lot of verve. So much so, in fact, that some reviewers have said Skulduggery Pleasant reads more like a movie screenplay than a novel. This connection makes sense. Landy wrote the screenplays for two Irish horror films (Dead Bodies and Boy Eats Girl) before writing Skulduggery Pleasant.

The story here does have a cinematic scope. Some novels are cerebral–relying heavily on what happens in the characters’ heads to drive the story along. This is not one of those novels. It doesn’t have to be. Landy’s descriptions are concrete and the plot straightforward, both of which lend themselves to film adaptation. The novel presents readers with all the information they need through the author’s narration.

Landy’s novel is mostly compared to movie scripts because of his dialogue. When the characters talk they are witty. Oftentimes they don’t really talk, they banter. Take for example, this exchange between Stephanie and Skulduggery:

“Mr. Pleasant, you’re a skeleton.”
“Ah yes, back to the crux of the thing. Yes. I am, as you say, a skeleton. I have been one for a few years now.”
“Am I going mad?”
“I hope not.”
“So you’re real? You actually exist?”
“Presumably.”
“You mean you’re not sure if you exist or not?”
“I’m fairly certain. I mean, I could be wrong. I could be some ghastly hallucination, a figment of my imagination.”
“You might be a figment of your own imagination?”
“Stranger things have happened. And do, with alarming regularity.”

This exchange is illustrative of the novel as a whole. The dialogue and, to some extent, the prose have a snap that is more often associated with a movie or a television show than with a book. I must admit that distinction never made sense to me. A book’s merit has more to do with good narrative and engaging characters than whether or not it sounds like a “real” book and this book has both.

All in all, the theatricality of Skulduggery Pleasant will probably prove to be an asset since, according to RTE Entertainment, Warner Brothers bought the movie rights for the entire series (a proposed total of nine books) in 2007. Book two in the series Playing With Fire will be released in May of this year.

Possible Pairings: The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

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