Book Review: Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Genre: Children’s Literature, Fantasy

Publishing Info: 2007 by HarperCollins Children’s Books

Pages: 361

The opening book in the critically acclaimed Skullduggery Pleasant series is a cracking read that takes the conventions from this genre and makes it pop out, down to a clear and effective writing style and characters which are likeable and layered.

The Skullduggery Pleasant series is generally aimed at children around the pre- and early-teen years. However, that does not mean that the writing style, language use and narrative is void of complexity and darker moments. I did not feel, as an adult reader, like I was being spoon fed every bit of detail. The fact that the protagonist is a detective makes it apt that the reader has to piece the clues together regarding the involvement of Stephanie’s uncle and the ultimate goal of the book’s villain. Likewise, there are some darker moments in this book involving torture and description of wounds, further cementing that this book is aimed for the 9-13 market but can appeal to much older.

There are two elements that really stand out to me upon reading this book: the sharp characterisation and crackling wit. The characters do seem slightly archetypal on the surface (wise-cracking detective, tough warrior woman), especially if the readers are familiar with these types of characters, but it is the dialogue that makes them come to life. The constant back and forth between Skullduggery and Stephanie makes for an amusing read as it feels as real as it can do between a skeleton and a 12 year old girl. In fact, the dialogue feels on the ball for virtually the entire book, which allows the pacing to remain constant, even when taking place in a scene with not a lot of action. The characterisation may seem unremarkable but little details and the layers attributed to each protagonist pops them out of the pages and makes them all extremely likeable as a result. On the flip side the antagonist isn’t given too much personality or a motivation, except world domination and a history with Skullduggery. As a result, the author makes it clear who to root for but makes Serpine seem one-dimensional in comparison. This is only a minor niggle though; in any other aspect the characters are note-perfect.

Another aspect of the book I really enjoyed was the action sequences. I have read books in the past where the action has been bogged down by overly long description or lacks the clarity required to not confuse the reader. Like the elements above, the fight scenes are sharp and to the point, whilst still going on for several pages and being easy to read. The technique that the author uses makes these sequences feel very cinematic, from the clear description of how the characters move within the scenes to the detail put into showing how individuals are killed or injured. In this aspect, the writing level is universal; it is neither complex nor childish and thus, like the rest of the book, means it can be enjoyed and appreciated by readers of different levels and ages.

This was the start of a series that has passed double figures in the number of books published. Reading this, it is clear how the writing style and narrative would be enjoyed by readers of all forms and how much potential there is in the characterisation and the possible narratives. Whilst it doesn’t stray too far away from conventions, the vividness and clarity of Skullduggery Pleasant marks it out as a leader in this crowded genre.

Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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