Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire: A Review

Skulduggery Pleasant Playing with Fire by Derek LandyEveryone’s favorite skeleton detective/wizard (and snappy dresser) Skulduggery Pleasant and the precocious Stephanie Edgley are back in Playing with Fire (2008) the action packed follow up to Derek Landy’s debut novel Skulduggery Pleasant.

Find it on Bookshop.

Playing with Fire picks up about a year after the first novel. Stephanie is officially apprenticed to Skulduggery Pleasant, learning more elemental magic, and helping Skulduggery fight crime under her taken name, Valkyrie Cain. Throughout the novel, it was impressive to see how deftly Landy handled the unusual name change of his main character as well as her negotiation of people who know her as both Valkyrie and Stephanie.

Skulduggery and Valkyrie are dealing with the usual mayhem and misfits when news of something really unpleasant comes their way. Baron Vengeous, one of Skulduggery’s old enemies, is back in town and dead set on bringing a monster called the Grotesquery back to life to wreak some havoc. Cobbled together from pieces of the most feared, not to mention brutal, monsters ever seen the Grotesquery has to be stopped before it becomes invincible. Oh and before it calls the Faceless Ones back to Earth to destroy everything.

With the help of Tanith Low, the two detectives set out to find and destroy the Grotesquery. But, as often happens, complications get in the way. In addition to possible corruption in the Council of Elders, Valkyrie and Skulduggery have to deal with Billy-Ray Sanguine–simultaneously one of the most likable and most horrifying villains of the series thus far.

On top of that, Valkyrie is beginning to feel like a stranger in her normal life as Stephanie Edgley. Using an enchanted reflection to go to school and otherwise act as her proxy, Valkyrie keeps telling herself that is the price for a life of adventure and magic. Still, as the problems mount and Valkyrie finds more twists and danger, it starts to seem like there will be a higher price to pay.

The important thing to remember about this series is that Skulduggery Pleasant was an insanely awesome, utterly original book. Given the high bar set by its predecessor, it was perhaps unavoidable that Playing with Fire would not be as good.

There is an old adage that before leaving the house a person should take off one accessory; if this book were a person, it would instead add one more. Landy piles villains on top of villains so that names begin to blend together and necessitate rereading. This novel is also rife with battle scenes–too many, really, in relation to the plot. Finally, and this one can be fixed, the end of the book left a lot of questions unanswered.

Taken together, these things lead to the possibility that Playing with Fire is a bridge book which serves more to transition from the first book and pave the way for the third book in the series than to stand on its own. (Clarifying example: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was a bridge movie.) Thus, while much of this book was not as marvelous as the first it is still entirely possible and even likely that the third book The Faceless Ones (due out in August 2009) will be another powerhouse of a book.

The emblematic banter and humor were still present, but not often enough. Ironically, given the name of the series, Skulduggery Pleasant really did not have enough page time in this book.

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

Skulduggery Pleasant: A Modern Fantasy for Modern Readers

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek LandySkulduggery 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).

Find it on Bookshop.

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, Jackaby by William Ritter, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud