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Book Review: The Skulduggery Pleasant Series, Books 1-3 by Derek Landy

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It must be a great time to be a reader of Young Adult fiction. YA is one of the most vibrant fiction markets still going strong, and is consequently drawing a much higher cadre of author than before. This is especially true for fantasy series. Harry Potter, The Dark is Rising, His Dark Materials and Twilight have all been huge cross-market sellers and have managed to garner a degree of critical attention.

One of the newer kids on the YA Fantasy block is Derek Landy, whose Skulduggery Pleasant books have begun to accumulate a following stateside after appearing in their country of origin, Ireland.

The premise is simple: When Stephanie Edgely's uncle, renowned horror writer Gordon Edgely, dies, Stephanie suddenly finds out that Gordon's stories were real, and a world of magic and intrigue lies just outside of our everyday reality. Her guide through this world of enchantment and horrors is Skulduggery Pleasant, a living skeleton who also happens to be a class A gumshoe.

The world of the books is fairly standard for fantasy novels. There are the good guys, largely affiliated with The Sanctuary, the ruling body of the magical world. There are the bad guys, a shifting cadre of villains seeking to do what villains do, upset the balances, horde the power, subjugate the weak, slaughter the innocent, etc. etc. Most of their plans revolve around bringing back ancient evil beings called The Faceless Ones who were banished to another dimension many years ago.

There were also ancient good being called, conveniently, The Ancients. If you're thinking a certain young female protagonist might just have a connection with these beings, you may be on to something.

The novels are greatly enriched with a cast of colorful side characters. There are some typical fantasy creatures, vampires, wizards, trolls, but there are also some more unusual touches, such as an appearance by English folklore character Spring Heeled Jack or an eyeless good old boy from Texas who can travel through the ground and has a nasty affection for a straight razor.

He also provides some wonderful set pieces. A clash with a bridge troll in Scepter of the Ancients is clever and exciting. An encounter with a mad wizard and his subterranean, shape-shifting house is also a particularly standout scene.

The problem is, as much as Landy's world is full of imagination, his plotting isn't. All three of the first novels have the same setup of introducing the bad guy, introducing the puzzle, then solving the puzzle and putting down the bad guy. This wouldn't be as much of an issue if we were ever thrown off-course or surprised in the narrative, but we aren't. That guy who seems too obviously suspicious and reeks of being a red herring? He's a red herring. That good guy who suddenly seems to be helping the bad guys for no discernible reason? He was just being a double agent; he's still on our side.

The books also suffer from a common problem in YA Fantasy, an overabundance of snark. Each books scrapes the edge of 400 pages, and could easily be cut down by 50 pages or so by removing half of the tedious "pithy" asides.

A more troubling element is a noticeable lack of consequences. There is a lot of lip service paid by other characters to let Stephanie, who takes the magical name Valkyrie Cain, know that this world is far too dangerous for her. However, outside of getting a bit banged up on occasion (and quickly healed through a magic potion, no less), Valkyrie, and everyone in her immediate circle, always get away clean.

That's not to say everyone gets away clean. Landy comes from a horror background, and there's more than a little gruesomeness to be found within the series. Bodies are mangled, torn inside-out, turned into goo and other such niceties. Rumor has it Warner Bros. is working on a film adaptation of the series. It will be interesting to see how they handle it, as I can't imagine some moments from these books making it into a PG or PG-13 movie.

Landy, for all of his obvious and, at times, infectious glee for splashing through the ickiness of horror, seems to strangely pull many important punches. While he doesn't fall back on the age-old ploy of making the main character an orphan, he largely sidesteps the parent issue, and a lot of good dramatic tension, by having Stephanie create a living mirror image of herself that goes through her daily life as a very basic functioning but soulless version of Stephanie. At the end of the day Stephanie "downloads" the mirror images memory, which also takes care of the whole school thing. Learning by osmosis, indeed!

One of the great joys of reading fantasy is that it can propagate abstract thoughts about real-world issues. This is especially true for young adults. The television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never so much about killing vampires as it was about exploring the perils and anxieties of being a teenage girl. Neil Gaiman's underrated film MirrorMask is about a girl about the same age as Stephanie Edgely whose encounter with a world created out of her own head works as a fascinating otherworldly examination of a girl entering puberty.

Landy, while having many strong elements at play, never accomplishes any of this higher drama. The third book, The Faceless Ones, appears to be getting closer. The book ends with the most dramatic cliff-hanger of the series and, in the series most potentially interesting turn, begins to see the mirror image not function as flawlessly as before.

According to Landy Skulduggery Pleasant is a planned nine book series. If, like Harry Potter before her, Stephanie Edgely can grow more complex and mature within upcoming novels, Landy may have a true winner on his hands. If not, the following six books will probably be much like their three predecessors, an enjoyable but inconsequential romp through an imaginative world of terrors and magic.

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