Skulduggery Pleasant

by Derek Landy

HarperCollins, 2007

392 pages

On the whole, I’m not much of a fantasy fan.

I think Tolkien ruined the genre for me back in middle school, when I first read Lord of the Rings. After Tolkien, run-of-the-mill fantasy novels seemed so, well, run-of-the-mill: dry and derivative.

There have been several happy exceptions, but fantasy definitely doesn’t tend to lure me like other genres. The fantasy novels I do love tend to have some quirk, some off-the-wall element that separates them from the field.

In fact, come to think of it, my tastes tend to skew toward the-quirkier-the-better. Which is why I picked up Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant. After I read a review promising dark humor, offbeat characters, and just the right amount of irony, it was an obvious choice.

Imagine how pleased I was to discover that it is also a great girls’ book.

As it turns out, the novel’s male title character is not the main character–that role goes to a twelve-year-old girl.

Stephanie Edgley lives in Haggard, a seaside suburb of Dublin. Short-tempered, intelligent but not particularly book-smart, straightforward, and athletic, she doesn’t get along very well with anyone except her parents and her Uncle Gordon, a famous and fabulously rich fantasy writer.

When Gordon dies suddenly and leaves her almost his entire estate, she discovers that her inheritance is magical as well as material. Gordon’s fantasy novels, it turns out, weren’t fantasy–they were true stories from the magical side of society, a side living incognito in the same world with ordinary humans.

This is where Skulduggery Pleasant enters the picture. A smartass, near-immortal skeleton who dresses in custom suits and wields an awesome array of magical powers, he was once an ancient warrior but now works as a detective for Ireland’s magical government.

When supervillain and sorcerer Nefarian Serpine sends his goons after Stephanie, thinking she (quite literally) holds the key to an invincible weapon called the Scepter of the Ancients, Skulduggery comes to her aid. I almost said “comes to protect her,” but that wouldn’t be quite right–and that, in fact, is why I’m writing this review.

Stephanie, it turns out, is extremely tough, both physically and mentally, and game for just about anything. In fact, while Skulduggery is initially very confident that she’ll want out of this magical entanglement ASAP, she’s just as sure that she doesn’t want anything of the sort.

Stephanie, Landy says, has always had a “voice in the back of her mind telling her that there should be more to her life than this . . . She just couldn’t figure out what that something was.”

With Skulduggery’s arrival, she finally knows. Deep down in her being, something clicks. The missing piece falls into place. She finds her calling–to make a place for herself in the magical world, and to join Skulduggery in his efforts to uncover the true circumstances of Gordon’s death and stop Nefarian.

So, while her magical acquaintances try to convince her to return to her normal, humdrum life, she keeps fighting for her place, literally and figuratively. And she is so tenacious–and so good at it–that she eventually succeeds.

If you’re wondering at this point, “That doesn’t sound offbeat. Where’s the dark humor, where’s the irony?” trust me, it’s all in the execution. In the repartee between Skulduggery and Stephanie, in little details like Skulduggery’s ugly yellow car and Mr. Edgley’s endearing cluelessness, in Landy’s stage-direction-style descriptions of the book’s many fights.

But underneath it all is that empowering message for girls: If you feel like there’s not a place for you, if you feel like you don’t fit in, don’t give up. It’s out there. And when you find it, don’t let anyone or anything keep it from you. Pursue your dream–it’s worth the fight.

I know I want my daughter to fight for her dreams. How about you?

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