Skulduggery Pleasant. By Derek Landy. HarperCollins. $17.99.
When a nattily dressing, grinning skeleton that throws fireballs is the good guy, you know you’ve stumbled into a really weird novel. Watch that stumbling, though – you might fall all the way under Derek Landy’s spell.
Landy is an Irish screenwriter of mostly forgettable horror films, but you won’t soon forget Skulduggery Pleasant (although you may forget the spelling of the character’s first name, which is the same as the word “skulduggery” but is mighty tempting to spell with a second “l”). This is Landy’s first book and the start of a trilogy, and it’s a wild ride from start to finish, featuring the ghostly…err, skeletonly sorcerer of the title, who was inconveniently dispatched some time in the past by an enemy whom he has returned to confront, and a 12-year-old girl named Stephanie Edgley who, it turns out, has a few tricks (as well as honest-to-goodness human skin) up her sleeve. Her name’s not that easy to spell, either, although it’s less important than the name she eventually chooses for herself…
This is mostly a romp: good guys, supremely evil guys whose existence and machinations threaten the very fabric of the universe, and all that. But there’s more to it, mostly in the form of knife-edge humor. The good forces of magic are threatened as much by their own bureaucratic bungling as by evil; sorcerers’ bags of tricks include one that always works but that has unforeseen consequences that continue for even-sorcerers-don’t-know-how-long; a couple of typical indestructible magical objects are key to the adventure, the problem being that they have to be destroyed; and so on. Skulduggery himself is vain to a fault and not nearly as competent as he thinks he is – although still darned good in a fight (well, some fights). He drives around in a Bentley, of all things – the car gets rather spectacularly taken out of action early in the book (to re-emerge later). And it’s hard to tell whether he’s revealing deep mysteries to Stephanie or just kidding. For instance, when he brings Stephanie to a mysterious tailor shop in a rundown neighborhood, Skulduggery tells her, “Surface is nothing,” which turns out to be important. He also tells her about the “very special clientele” this tailor serves, including “an eight-armed octopus man. …There’s a whole colony of octopus people.” Stephanie is taken aback – “Really?” – and Skulduggery says, “Good God, Stephanie, of course not. That would be far too silly.”
This is not all fun and word games, though. The dangers faced by Stephanie and Skulduggery are pretty intense. A young (apparently young) woman called Tanith Low (surely in homage to author Tanith Lee) is first seen facing down a monstrous troll beneath Westminster Bridge in London – but then finds out, when she later joins in as Skulduggery’s ally, that there are far more dangerous things to fight. One of those, as it happens, is betrayal: a big reason this book works so well is that Landy keeps you guessing about who is on which side. Oh, the main good guys and bad guys are clear enough, but throw in some self-interested types and an out-and-out betrayer or two and you have a real thrill ride. And it is, mind you, but the first of three. This is one trilogy whose first part makes the second and third seem well worth waiting for.