Skullduggery Pleasant, Book 4
by Derek Landy
320 pages, Harper Collins Omes
Review by SF Winser
The Skullduggery Pleasant books, are, for me, must reads. The moment one appears it's in my hands. But... This is not actually a recommendation. They are FOR ME, must reads. The humour and tone and weirdness just work for me. For others, they are as off-putting as hell.
Landy rocks dialogue. If he has been tagged as a script-doctor, yet, someone in Hollywood is not doing their job. His characters speak to each other in a tone that is hilarious and dry. It's often full of hidden exposition – or even naked exposition – but still manages to work and sometimes fly. It's not naturalistic, by any means, but it is stylistically fluid and wonderfully combative.
The books are the story of an underground society of wizards who have, for years, been fighting off the forces of Darkness. Sort of like if Harry Potter had grown up and gotten a government job. There's lots of history, lots of plots and magic. The main character is Valkyrie Cain (a fake name. Everyone in the magic underworld has code names, because a wizard who knows your true name has power over you) a teenage girl who is learning magic from the titular 'Skullduggery Pleasant' because she happens to be good at it. She also has a few skeletons in her family closet who come to call when her beloved uncle dies and leaves her his house. Pleasant IS a walking skeleton, whose wit is as dry as his bones and works as a kind of detective/bully-boy/spy for the good wizards. He has a backstory all his own.
Now Landy is not going for awards in any of these books. He is, quite baldly, going for cool. Cool fights, cool dialogue, cool plots, cool characters. He succeeds... more than he fails. His grasp on action scenes is good, his pacing of them has at times faltered. In 'Dark Days' it feels like his touch has finally become more sure. In fact, in this book Landy's weaknesses (usually of the 'too much' variety: too many weird names, too many characters, too much action, too much funny dialogue) are very much toned down. Part of this is helped by the fact that this is book 4 and so many of the characters have become, finally, memorable without too much mental juggling of weird names. It also helps that Landy is starting a new plot cycle in this book. He's both tidying up the cliffhanger from book 3, and introducing a new Big Bad. And what an enigmatic (though predictable to the cynical) and cool Big Bad it is. Books 5 and 6 should be a lot of fun. The sense of focus that comes from NEEDING to get both of these tasks resolved in one book seems to help hold the book together with fewer stumbles. I enjoyed this installment better than the others, with perhaps the exception of the first book.
And that's it. The Skullduggery Pleasant books are fun. Adrenaline-creating, cool, funny YA. With good guys who aren't always good, bad guys who aren't always bad. Cool fights, great magic, Characters who are magical ninjas, or fire-throwing detectives or inept murderers who turn into zombies. 'Dark Days' is probably one of the best, so far, at keeping that level of cool and weird, moving forward, balanced and fun.