Ever since helping to save the world, Valkryie Cain (once plain old Stephanie Edgeley) has been receiving training in magic, combat, and detective work from the undead gumshoe Skulduggery Pleasant and his extremely colorful associates. Now one of Skulduggery’s old enemies is back, intent on awakening his evil gods – and Valkryie is a major part of his plan. In order to foil the plot, Valkryie must fight her way through centuries-old enmities, corruption at the highest level, and more than one sociopathic killer with a mad-on for Valkryie herself.
I gave the first book in this series the full five cupcakes, since it was such a giddy punchfest with incredibly appealing characters and some very strong worldbuilding. Playing With Fire continues in that vein, but it did have a few issues here and there which kept cropping up and making me go “Well, hmm.”
For starters, I don’t know if Landy has a secret dream of becoming a Hollywood fight choreographer or what, but there were so many fight scenes, and each one was meticulously over-described. It seemed like every few pages Valkyrie or Skulduggery or Tanith Low was duking it out with some villain or another, and the literally blow-by-blow descriptions of said dukage started making my eyes glaze over. I don’t need to know that Skulduggery led with a right hook and followed it up with an uppercut to the jaw or whatever. I can’t see it, so it doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t know exactly how to reach the happy medium between this and being too vague, which is just as bad (i.e. “They struggled for a bit, but it soon became apparent that Character A had the upper hand,” which I’ve seen other writers *coughMichaelBuckleycough* do), but if Landy wants to keep this much fisticuffs in his books, he’s gotta find it.
Of course, part of the reason there were so many fight scenes in the book was because there were so many villains. All told, there was one (1) meglomaniacal zealot, three (3) serial killers, one (1) vampiric mercenary, one (1) corrupt government official, one (1) crazy shapeshifting recluse, several (like 6) vampire zombie things, a bunch of (4-ish) drunken wizard thugs, and one (1) plain old monster, although several of the previously-listed villains could certainly be categorized as monsters as well. And aside from the vampire zombie things and the thugs, none of them were cannon fodder – they all had personalities, subplots, motivations, you name it. That’s good, of course…except when you have so very many of them. I mean, three serial killers, Landy? That’s really two more than you need, unless you’re Thomas Harris and this is yet another Silence of the Lambs spinoff.
The problem was really that there was too much book in the book. The heroes have to stop Baron Vengeous from carrying out his terrible plan, so they have to keep him from getting this magical armor, but he gets that, so they have to stop him from getting the body of the Grotesquery, but he gets that, so they have to stop him from getting a heart for it…there were so many repetitive steps being carried out by so many characters that it became rather hard to follow. It seemed like Landy had a million great ideas (and though there are too many elements, they’re all good) and no one to tell him to streamline it. Frankly I would have preferred dropping out some of that noise in favor of more on Valkyrie’s unhealthy and growing distance from anything resembling a normal life, which was subtle and fascinating.
All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Valkyrie remains a strong, interesting central character, and her personality is never overwhelmed by the far more colorful figures around her, which is an impressive feat. I particularly enjoy her relationships with the other characters. She’s adorable in her role of student to Skulduggery’s mentor, of course, with a nice combination of respecting him and totally not respecting him. The standout for me, though, is her relationship with her parents. Unlike most tween/teenage protagonists, she actually gets along with them, although she’s aware of their foibles. There’s no angst there, despite the slightly dysfunctionality of her father’s relationships with his brothers (one of whom, Gordon, was the uncle who’s death kicked off all of Valkyrie’s adventures); they’re just likeable and a little loopy and very sweet. It’s a nice change.
And as usual, the supporting characters are great, the dialogue is witty, and the adventure is exciting, with just enough left unexplained at the end to leave you impatient for the next book. It’s just fun. Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing With Fire has a little to much going on to get the rating its predecessor got, but it still earns itself a very respectable four and a half cupcakes. When is the next one coming out again?
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