When Stephanie’s Uncle Gordon dies and leaves his house and fortune to her, she finds that she’s also inherited her fair share of dangerous secrets – not to mention the friendship of the walking, talking, magic-wielding skeleton Skulduggery Pleasant. A detective by trade, Skulduggery is investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding Gordon’s death, which he believes are tied in with a plot to bring back a race of evil, destructive gods and destroy civilization as we know it. Together with Ghastly the magical boxing tailor and Tanith the goofy-but-ruthless swordswoman, and armed with a little bit of magic and a whole lot of snappy patter, Stephanie and Skulduggery must navigate a network of conspiracies and double-crosses in order to unlock Uncle Gordon’s secrets and save the world.
I must admit, I opened this book rather listlessly, but once I got started I don’t think I stopped to breathe until I was done. Skulduggery Pleasant (and yes, there’s only one L in “Skulduggery,” though it makes my American spell check cry) is funny, smart, and exciting, and before I was a quarter of the way through I was crossing my fingers that this was only the beginning of a series (it is! Google tells me there will be seven or eight more books!).
Skulduggery himself is delightful, as a witty, urbane Irish skeleton detective sorcerer in a good suit almost has to be, but the real triumph of the book is Stephanie. Though she does read a bit older than her 12 years (and a lot of that may be the dialogue, which is as stylized as a classic screwball comedy and gives everyone a veneer of unflappable panache), she is otherwise a fully-realized and fully believable protagonist. She’s smart, with genuine detective chops, brave but not blindly fearless, and forceful but not obnoxiously bullheaded. At no point does she come off as an annoyingly super-special heroine; although she has latent magical powers and something of an enchanted genealogy, she pulls through mostly on sheer grit. Skulduggery may be the flashy selling point of the book, but Stephanie is its heart.
The other characters are equally well-done, from the crusty but well-meaning Elders to the truly macabre villain to the host of inscrutable magical figures who operate by their own rules – rules which may or may not prohibit betraying Stephanie and Skulduggery. I was particularly fond of Tanith Low, who seems like your classic impassive noble warrior woman when we first meet her, but reveals a goofier side as she and Stephanie grow friendly. Here’s a snippet of her biography from the official website: “For hobbies, I like to hit people. A lot of the time, I like to kick them. I’ll throw in a few knees if I’m getting bored, but generally just hitting people, yeah. Oh, and stamp collection – but I’ve just started, and I don’t have any yet, so I don’t know if that counts.” Awesome.
The plot was solid, with some good twists throughout. I tend to get irritated with kids’ books with obvious mysteries: kids may not have the extensive reading experience to tip them off when familiar patterns start to emerge, but they’re not stupid either, and there’s no reason to dumb down a mystery for them. A couple of aspects of this mystery were obvious from the get-go, seeing as how I’ve, you know, read books before, but I often found myself gasping and declaring the answer moments before Stephanie did, which to me is a sign of a good kids’ mystery – hard enough that you don’t get bored, easy enough that you can figure out the answer before the heroine does and thus feel clever. The world-building was solid, too, particularly Stephanie’s intriguing family history and the emphasis on names, which played off the common fantasy trope that knowing someone’s name gives you power over them.
Furthermore, Skulduggery Pleasant was delightfully, overtly feminist. Early on this scene jumped out at me so strongly I lunged for a piece of paper to make a note of the page:
They both got out and went around to the front and opened the hood.
“Well,” her mother said, looking at the engine, “at least that’s still there.”
“Do you know anything about engines?” Stephanie asked.
“That’s why I have a husband, so I don’t have to. Engines and shelves, that’s why man was invented.”
Stephanie made a mental note to learn about engines before she turned eighteen. She wasn’t too fussed about the shelves.
It’s Stephanie to a T: fiercely independent, endlessly inquisitive, and really into cars. However, it’s also a reminder to readers of both genders that knowledge and self-sufficiency are important things to have and not the sole purview of men.
But the moment that really made me sit up and take notice was this one:
“Serpine [the villain] used my wife and child as a weapon against me. In order to do so, he had to kill them. He took my family’s death and he made it about me. [Stephanie], when you die, it will be your death, and yours alone. Let it come to you on your own terms.”
This might not have pinged so hard if I wasn’t an avid reader of superhero comics. But I am, and though the genre has its merits, it is also home to that lovely trope Gail Simone called “Women in Refrigerators.” Named for Alex DeWitt, who was killed, dismembered, and stuffed into a refrigerator by a villain in order to torment her superhero boyfriend Green Lantern, the term refers to female characters who are killed, raped, assaulted, depowered, or otherwise brutalized, particularly when this is done in order to cause pain to male characters who care about them. The list of female characters who’ve been “fridged” is long and includes quite a few of my favorites (including one named Stephanie). It is also by no means limited to superheroes, but is unfortunately present in any genre with an emphasis on action and heroics – like science fiction and fantasy. Thus when a book demands that a female character’s potential death be about her and on her terms, I can’t help but be thrilled.
As you might have guessed by now, Skulduggery Pleasant gets five cupcakes. I absolutely loved it, and can’t wait until the next one comes out!
Tags: Derek Landy