1. Skulduggery is a magical skeleton detective.
Just stop and think about that for a second. So many children’s authors would expect their young readers to simply suspend their disbelief and accept that, in the world of this novel, magical skeleton detectives are just part of how things roll. Not so Derek Landy. Instead, Skulduggery’s past and his current status as animate skeleton are explained so matter-of-factly that the reader is able to place complete trust in the potential of this world to exist. Skulduggery is witty, droll, powerful, loyal and just a little bit shifty. Few titular characters are as likable as the skeleton detective.
2. The meta-fictional sense of humour
Skulduggery Pleasant is a book that is constantly aware of its genre, and of the reader’s scepticism. Rather than trying to overcome this with detailed descriptions and overwhelming world-building, Landy instead turns this into a basis for humour. Skulduggery Pleasant literally made me laugh out loud so often that I repeatedly garnered odd looks from my fellow passengers on public transport.
“China is the same age as I am, and even I have to admit that she wears it better!” He laughed, then stopped and peered at her. “Because I’m a skeleton” he explained.”
“A living skeleton isn’t enough for you, is it? What does it take to impress young people these days?”
“Doesn’t sunlight kill them? Doesn’t it turn them to dust, or make them burst into flames or something?”
“Nope. Vampires tan, just like you and me. Well, just like you. I tend to bleach.”
3. The character’s names are excellent.
The magic system in the world of Skulduggery Pleasant is based upon names. Individuals are given three names – their given name, the name they choose, and their true name. Some of the names that characters choose for themselves are simply wonderful: Skulduggery Pleasant, for one, but also: Mevolent, the evil sorcerer; Meritorious, one of the wise Elders; Ghastly, the scarred but kindly tailor; and China Sorrows, dangerously beautiful librarian.
4. Stephanie’s inquisitive and enjoyably bossy personality
I’m so tired of reading reviews that praise “strong female characters.” It’s a concept I can no longer be bothered engaging with, because I think I believe it is more detrimental than it is helpful to depictions of female characters. What fiction, especially children’s fiction, needs more of are characters like Stephanie. Through a combination of inheritance and conscious choice, Stephanie finds herself fully immersed in the magical world of Skulduggery and his companions. Certain that she is now on the path to realising her life’s goals, she pesters, annoys and frustrates Skulduggery into taking her on as an apprentice. Stephanie is whip-smart, insolent and determined. In other words, she’s an actual twelve-year-old girl, and not an idealised “role model” coming to us from the top of an unrealistically high pedestal.
5. The book does not speak down to its readers
This is not a book dumbed down for its young readers. Now, it should be noted that the narration, content and language used are all age-appropriate, but in no way is it lowered in either quality or context for the younger reader. This means that Skulduggery Pleasant is just as enjoyable for the adult readers as it is for the kids!
6. The cleverly revealed layers of the plot
In addition to the highly entertaining dialogue, the plot of the first novel is fast-paced, action-packed and character-driven. All the things that you need to make a compulsive read. The author pays homage to the noir tradition, but also splices in all manner of pop-culture references (not the least of which is Lovecraftian!).
7. The relationship between Skulduggery and Stephanie (later Valkyrie)
Skulduggery is Stephanie’s teacher, mentor and protector. In turn, she is his loyal protégée. At times, they act like bickering siblings, and they’re certainly not afraid of being open with one another, but it’s quite clear that they are fiercely protective friends. It is refreshing and endearing to read about a genuinely caring relationship which is not based on romance. Skulduggery and Stephanie are simply in this together because they want to be, and that’s lovely.
“…what I was going to say is there’s something about you that is really annoying, and you never do what you’re told, and sometimes I question your intelligence—but even so, I’m going to train you, because I like having someone follow me around like a little puppy. It makes me feel good about myself.”
She rolled her eyes. “You are such a moron.”
“Don’t be jealous of my genius.”
“Can you get over yourself for just a moment?”
“If only that were possible.”
“For a guy with no internal organs, you’ve got quite the ego.”
“And for a girl who can’t stand up without falling over, you’re quite the critic.”
“My leg will be fine.”
“And my ego will flourish. What a pair we are.”
8. The fact that Skulduggery Pleasant is not yet a movie franchise
This is surprising, because it’s a series bound for the silver screen. I’m delighted to have found these books before they get to movie-stage, because it could be done so very badly. Derek Landy’s novels are eccentric, quintessentially Irish and highly imaginative, and I worry that they would not translate effectively through the lens of a Hollywood camera. Read them before a film comes out, so you can make up your own mind.
9. The darkness that counterbalances the humour
Many children’s novels lean toward the saccharine in order to avoid frightening young readers. Few authors manage to walk the line between humour and darkness, but Landy carries it off without a hitch. There are scenes of surprising darkness in Skulduggery Pleasant, but the characters balance this out with unexpected quips and flippant commentary. Indeed, when Skulduggery is faced with somewhat graphic torture, he lightens the mood considerably by simply laughing at his captor.
10. The fact that this is a whole series I get to discover
These are the kind of books I look forward to reading during my breaks, on the bus and before bed – an escape into a world with vivid characters, a multi-faceted magic system and an endless font of humour.