Skullduggery Pleasant is about as bodiless as its titular character. Notice I didn’t say “protagonist,” for Skullduggery, the skinless magical gumshoe on a quest to stop Serpine from bringing back the Nameless Ones, is not really the center of the story. He is, if you pardon the brittle pun, only its frame. The real honor goes to a plucky and wise twelve-year old named Stephanie Edgley.
Stephanie is mature beyond her years, preferring to read books and to correspond with her mysterious uncle rather than get swept up in the boring drudgery of the ordinary. And, poor girl, when that same uncle dies under shady circumstances, she inherits his millions, and his fabulous house to boot. Author Derek Landy does a good job in these early chapters of creating a sense of mystery, darkness, and, well, skullduggery, but the charm lasts no longer than Stephanie’s grief for her obviously-murdered uncle. She’s quickly pulled into a world of magical intrigue occupied by a certain reanimated good guy ghoul, and from then on Skullduggery Pleasant is just like every tween fantasy novel you’ve ever read.
Within a few chapters readers are treated to the Standard Account: that other world, and the magical drama unfolding right beside us, along with its special rules, its out-of-touch hierarchies, its big baddies, and its all-powerful MacGuffins. Naturally, most of this is related in snappy dialog that is definitely not an excuse to drown the reader in exposition, nor to show off Stephanie and Skullduggery’s witty personalities. So much for mystery, and a slow-burn. And speaking of slow burns…
Skullduggery Pleasant may set the record for the most single instances of bad guys walking about and relating with just what degree of thoroughness they will utterly destroy the good guys who, at that very moment, lie bound, and entirely at their mercy. Bad guy Serpine can chat it up with the best of them, which is a rather lucky coincidence, as the book also features multiple variations on that tried-and-true strategy for escaping the clutches of villains: “…but with one bound, Jack was free!” There’s also a cool Black Widow-alike named Tanith Low who has no trouble dispatching trolls and monsters many times her size. (Don’t worry: she’s actually like ninety years old, so it makes total sense.) Though Stephanie has literally no experience in this world, this does not prevent her from repeatedly escaping unescapable monsters that everyone else is deathly afraid of. Lucky, I guess.
But maybe it’s more than luck! In a completely original plot twist, we learn that Stephanie is not so ordinary after all. Instead she’s rumored to be the descendant of some seriously powerful beings. No wonder she never quite fit into the ordinary world – she was born for this! All joking aside, Book One does contain some interesting elements.
Landy crafts a fun and self-consciously Lovecraftian backstory, and the conceit of a skeleton detective still solving crimes after death works very well. I was also pleased by some of the supporting characters, especially the femme fatale China Sorrows, the physically powerful but strangely caculating Mr. Bliss, and even the stereotypical but still interesting Tanith Low. The book has little substance to offer, but I was at least intrigued by Mr. Bliss, whose very physical strength – and his reliance upon it in an uncertain world – has made him cautious to a moral fault.
Aside from some talk about Skullduggery hating and wanting revenge on his enemies, some references to offscreen torture, and gun violence that fits its noirish atmosphere, Book One features little that would concern parents. Later entries will pose some parents difficulties, as it is eventually revealed that both the protagonist and her ally Tanith Low have, at one time or another, been romantically attracted to both men and women. There’s even a wisp of this in Book One between Stephanie and the much older China Sorrows (who is magically attractive to everyone.) I have not read the later volumes, but I expect this content was on the lighter side, as it was not enough to pacify this Twitter user’s sense of representation.
In this case, and in almost every respect, Skullduggery Pleasant conforms to both genre and cultural expectations. Though Skullduggery’s name graces the title, his main narrative role in Book One is to introduce Stephanie to his world, and to validate her place within it. Her parents are not portrayed as idiots, just a little too conservative to see the whole spectrum of reality, which again fits the Middle Grade model. Stephanie, being twelve, is vulnerable and has things to learn, but she gives as good as she gets, and can hold her own in a battle of wits with a four-hundred year old skeleton sorcerer detective – just like real twelve year olds. Indeed, Skullduggery Pleasant does everything that the Nameless Ones – sorry, the mainstream publishing industry – wants this genre of fiction to do. I’m sure it’ll someday be a Disney movie, assuming the writers there can find a creative way to swap guns for colorful laser pew-pews. This reviewer waits with bated breath.