Posts Tagged ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’

Death Bringer.

An apt title to read this week as I have struggled with another vile bug. Or possibly the same vile bug that I’ve had since Christmas and never really shifted.

The Death Bringer virus.

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Or perhaps just book six in the Skulduggery Pleasant series.

I lost faith a little with Mortal Coil and the unnecessary violence inflicted in Valkyrie Cain there. I was pleased that Landy appeared to have stepped back: there is plenty of violence in here – plenty! – but it has a comic book quality to it rather than horror. It is perhaps telling that the final conflict is resolved in a Forbidden Planet store for a couple of reasons.

Ok. Let’s look at the plot. In some ways, the plot felt freer than previously. Almost pared down. The various generals of Mevolent’s war had been dispatched with previously and it felt as if Landy had drawn a line under that. Our antagonist instead was the Necromancy Order who had been erstwhile allies and were tutoring Valkyrie. They had discovered (or twisted into being) a sufficiently powerful necromancer to act as the fabled Death Bringer.

Once it was realised what the Death Bringer was intended to do, which isn’t wholly surprising given its name, Skulduggery, Valkyrie and the Sanctuary seek to stop her.

A lot of fighting ensues.

We also get a good chance to study the terrible Darquesse, the ultra powerful version of Valkyrie fated to destroy the world. And we discover the truth about – and again witness – Lord Vile. The full Lord Vile. Not just his armour. Their combat certainly came across as cool. And violent. Bones shattered and organs were crushed. But healed instantaneously. There was also something reminiscent of Man Of Steel about it though: two functionally invulnerable characters fighting each other quickly becomes repetitive. And stale. And dull.

In fairness, Landy does just about pitch it right. Better than Man of Steel.

The novel also seems more character driven than previously. Although there has been a gap since I read the previous ones so I may be doing them a disservice. The darkness at the heart of both Skulduggery and Valkyrie get star billing with echoes of Jekyll and Hyde. The somewhat cliched love triangle between Valkyrie, Fletcher and the vampire Caelan is resolved – with an always enjoyable swipe at Twilight

“We’re not Buffy and Angel, or Romeo and Juliet, or those other two from West Side Story. We’re not even Edward and Bella. OK? You’re far too freaky for me.”
He looked at her. “We’re meant to be together…”
“And this is exactly what I mean.”
“Our love is written in the stars.”
“And there you go again.”
“I love you.”
“You bore me.”
He faltered. “What?”

And we see far more of Valkyrie at home, with her parents, her baby sister and even her uncle and cousins.

Along with the fighting, Landy’s hallmark has been the comedy elements to his books: Skulduggery is typically described as wise-cracking; Scapegrace and Thrasher return as the comedy zombies. Personally, I think the comedy was overdone here a little: following the deaths in the assault on the Necromancers’ Temple, Cleric Craven and the remains of the order seemed to degenerate into farce and were almost played for laughs which detracted from the credibility of their threat. And the incessant joking and wisecracking from Skulduggery became just a little tiresome.

I did enjoy Fletcher’s character assassination of Valkyrie, though, when she dumped him

“Do you even care? I mean, I know you’re crying, I can see the tears, but they’re not tears for me. You’re crying because you feel bad. Those tears are about you, because everything is about you. It always is, isn’t it? The world revolves around you because you are just that selfish…. I don’t think it even occurred to you that I would be hurt. It never entered your head. You’re that obsessed with yourself, you know that?”

And I have to say I do kind of agree with him: she is an engaging character but all her wisecracking gives her a certain air of self-importance. It is important that we see her in these more domestic and mundane and emotionally vulnerable.

The novel leaves many potential threats by the end: Melancholia, Eliza Scorn, the continually misbehaving reflection and, most interestingly to me, Kenny Dunne, a journalist slowly patching together an exposé of the magical world of Dublin.

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I have been enjoying this series. They were nothing exciting, nothing terribly original.

But they were fun.

They were light hearted.

They were fast-paced and witty.

But niggles and worries are starting to mar my enjoyment of them now. The worse elements are coming to the fore and the books are becoming increasingly dark, violent and disturbing.

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The plot focuses much more on Valkyrie Cain than the previous books: the threat doesn’t come from an escaped convict or a malicious gaggle of vengeful past characters; no one is attempting to return the Faceless Ones to power. Instead, the novel continues the quest to identify the new threat Darquesse and develops Valkyrie’s final realisation from Dark Days that her true name is Darquesse and that she is herself destined to kill her own family and destroy the world.

Two parallel plots develop: Valkyrie seeks to have her true name sealed in order to stop anyone from forcing her to become Darquesse by using the power of her name; and the Necromancers accidentally release two thousand ‘Remnants’ into Ireland. Remnants, which had been introduced the Dark Days are slivers of dark power capable of inhabiting human bodies and accessing their skills, powers and memories.

It is the first strand of these plots that I balked at: in order to seal net true name, Valkyrie had to enter a state of conscious death, had to watch and observe her own dissection, the removal of her heart and the etching of symbol magic into the flesh of her heart. And the dead / undead surgeon Nye then proceeds to imprison Valkyrie and continue to dissect her organ by organ. And she lies there and watches the procedure in a state of inertia.

I’m sorry.

That’s grim.

There’s a lingering on it which hadn’t been there in the darker aspects of the earlier novels . Yes, to be sure, Tanith Low is regularly tortured (I think as revenge on the editors who thought it was too dark to kill her off in book one); Skulduggery is tortured. But these are brief moments, usually off stage, referred to but not seen. Here, Landy lingers and describes and we see the heart. And, whilst dissected, Valkyrie contrives to escape her bonds, standing up, organs removed, folding her sternum and chest back onto itself, chucking her own heart and removed organs into a carrier bag.

This is almost torture-porn.

And for children.

I’m not the sort of chap who thinks children’s books should be sentimentalised and anodyne. I like gritty young adult books: I thought Between Shades of Gray, fir example, was wonderful in its honest unsentimental realistic horror of the war. Violence, loss, death are, in my opinion not inappropriate for young adult fiction, if there is a point to it.

But this, like Darren Shan’s Demonata series revelled in gore for its own sake and there was no other point. The gore did not make the situation tense; it did not add to the plot; it did not develop any character – although apparently Nye, the ‘doctor’ who performed the procedure will be brought back in future books.

In retrospect, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I object to the pointlessness of Landy’s torture-fest.

Reading this immediately after the first in the series, Skulduggery Pleasant, is interesting: it highlights both some flaws and some developments.

In terms of plot, there’s a sense of déjà vu from the first book: a general from the previous war escapes from prison; he sets about acquiring an artefact to bring back ancient Gods, the Faceless Ones; he is defeated on the cusp of success.

The baddie this time is Baron Vengeous (again letting us see Landy’s almost Dickensian playfulness with his characters’ names – although BBC Radio 4’s Dickensian spoof Bleak Expectations’ still wins the name calling contest for me, naming its antagonist Mr Gently Benevolent!) And the artefact in question is The Grotesquery: a dead Frankenstein hybrid of various parts of various monsters including the corpse of a Faceless One.

There is a ramp up in the violence and gore here from the first book: the Grotesquery itself is a combination of gory detail and bandage-covered suggestion of worse; numerous characters get ripped apart and poisoned and crushed.

A note on Landy’s magic system. Sorcerers come in two categories: Elementals who manipulate earth, fire, water and air; and Adepts who can do anything else. China Sorrows’ body is (presumably magically) covered in multiple rune and symbol tattoos which can be activated to create effects; Billy-Ray Sanguine seems to be able to sink through the physicality of earth or walls or prisons. It’s almost as if Landy tried to work just with Elementals like Skulduggery but didn’t have enough variety to play with.

The most intriguing character for me currently is Stephanie’s reflection. It’s a device that my step-son would kill for: it brings her reflection out of the mirror to continue her mundane school life whilst she’s out detecting and magicking. And we’ve been told that she’s overusing it; she allows it to be shot and ‘die’ in her place; sorcerers are finding it difficult to tell it apart from the original; and it seems to be hiding things from Stephanie when it’s dismissed and she re-absorbs all of its/her memories. I can see Landy building her / it up as a plot device in future books.

I still worry that there is a shallowness to the book: Stephanie barely blinks when the reflection ‘downloads’ the memory of dying into her own memories. She was equally unreactive to Gordon’s death in the first book. Again, it is another well paced story but perhaps sacrifices narrative for plot. I understand that there are limits to the introspection you can put into a Young Adult book… But I wanted some.

I think a break from the series is in order for a moment…

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I read Landy’s The Faceless Ones – the third in the Skulduggery Pleasant series – and, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it: a smart and sassy heroine; an enigmatic and intriguing (possibly anti-) hero; a wide range of engaging characters. So I have taken the fact that the current seventh book, The Kingdom Of The Wicked is longlisted for the Carnegie Medal 2013 to catch up on the series starting with this, number one.

And it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

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Skulduggery, the eponymous skeletal hero, is still an engaging character. His own bemusement at his own existence is wonderful.

But the darkness that other characters refer to – his obsession, the hatred that pulled him back from death to inhabit (most of) his old bones, the tragedy that lead to his death – was never felt. At least not by me. And I know that Landy is writing for a relatively young audience but there is the occasional gruesome scene and he doesn’t shy away from impalements, death and torture. I wanted to feel with this book what I vaguely recall feeling with the third: that Skulduggery Pleasant was dark and dangerous.

I also had peeves with Stephanie Edgely as a character here: she is plucky and independent and thats all great … but she becomes too authoritative too quickly, too absorbed into and claiming understanding and knowledge of a world that heretofore she had not known existed. Seriously, Stephanie, you think the Sceptre of The Ancients exists? You’re 12, you’ve known of magic for a weekend, I’m not impressed. You came across as … I’m sorry to say … a bit of a brat.

As for the plot, if you’ve seen it read Harry Potter, you’re in familiar territory. There is a secret society of magic; the mundane world knows nothing of it; an ancient war between good and evil was won by good; evil is making a play back for power; an innocent girl with a hitherto unknown background in magic is drawn into the magical society and saves the world.

There is an ancient magical race known as – somewhat predictably – The Ancients who worshipped The Faceless Ones as gods but who turned against them and created the ultimate weapon, the Sceptre of the Ancients, to destroy or banish them. And once successful, they turned on each other and destroyed the entire race. In the war, the dark side were intent on bringing the Faceless Ones back to earth and allowing them to destroy humanity.

Landy does have fun with his characters names: Nefarian Serpine (nefarious, serpentine), Mevolent (malevolent) and the elders Eachan Meritorious and Sagacious Tome. Even Edgley: the family who live on the edge of the mundane and magical worlds.

In many ways the minor characters are more evocative and intriguing than the main ones: China Sorrows with whom everyone falls in love; the swordswoman Tanith Low who alternates between heartless savage killing and childlike gigging with Stephanie. Apparently Landy’s first draft killed her off but she was saved by his editors who thought the scene too sad. In exchange, Landy was permitted to torture her in each book. What does that say about our society? The character of Gordon Edgley, like Marley dead before the book begins, seems a thinly veiled portrait of Landy himself: a writer who would

systematically subject his hero to brutal punishment in a bid to strip away all his arrogance and certainty so that by the end he was humbled and had learned a great lesson. And then Gordon killed him off usually in the most undignified way possible. Stephanie could almost hear Gordon laughing with malicious glee as she read.

There is certainly enough here to warrant further reading of the series. It is certainly a good, fun and very well-paced book populated by likeable engaging characters. In comparison with other Carnegie award winners – the closest comparison would be Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness as the final book in a trilogy – there needs to be a big shift up in gears for The Kingdom of The Wicked to make the Carnegie Shortlist.