Note that this review contains significant spoilers.
Twelve-year-old Stephanie Edgley is bored. She is a normal girl living a normal life in the Dublin suburb of Harrow, and it’s making her a little crazy. So she is quite upset when her favourite uncle, Gordon, passes away unexpectedly. Gordon was her favourite not just because he doted on her shamelessly, but because he lived in a sprawling manor house in the country, wrote bestselling novels about magic and sorcery, and would regale her with wild and wonderful tales of a world in parallel with this one. With Gordon gone, so too goes the world, doesn’t it?
Except that, during the funeral, Stephanie meets with one of Gordon’s weirder friends: a tall man wearing an overcoat, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses, even indoors. His name is Skulduggery Pleasant, but despite this, the two hit it off, somehow, and Stephanie is intrigued. Then, much to her surprise, Skulduggery is invited along with the rest of the family to a reading of Gordon’s will. Skulduggery’s bequest comes in the form of weird advice from Gordon read by the lawyer. Then Stephanie’s surprise turns to shock as the rest of the estate is divvied up. Her parents get a villa in France. Her other, least favourite, uncle and aunt get a car (he can’t drive) and a boat (he gets seasick), not to mention a worthless broach. Stephanie inherits Gordon’s royalties. And the manor.
So begins Derek Landry’s first novel in the Skulduggery Pleasant book series for young adults, entitled The Scepter of the Ancients. Stephanie soon discovers that the weird and wonderful world that Gordon wrote about is actually real. She also discovers that it’s quite dangerous. When circumstances conspire to keep the precocious twelve-year-old girl in Gordon’s sprawling manor home alone overnight (a prospect she relishes and her parents, much to my surprise, acquiesce to), a force of evil comes knocking on the door, and then crashing through the window, threatening to kill Stephanie if she doesn’t turn over the key.
That’s when Skulduggery Pleasant comes to the rescue, and reveals himself to be a literal, living skeleton with magical powers. He introduces himself as a wizard detective, and tells Stephanie that she has found herself in the middle of a power struggle. She should run for safety, but she decides she doesn’t want to. She demands to be taken along for the ride. Skulduggery eventually decides that he could use a partner, and Stephanie begins to participate in a world that her uncle only observed and wrote about.
If you love Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, there’s a lot to love with Skulduggery Pleasant. The banter between Skulduggery and Stephanie recalls that of Giles and Buffy, and the action comes fast and furious. There’s magical battles, monsters, truly scary vampires (I appreciate the kicks Derek Landry gets in on the Twilight phenomenon), and fights galore, all written in a style that doesn’t drag and which goes over-the-top at just the right minute, keeping the story tipped every so slightly on the lighter side of things.
Landry also excels at making his characters both cliched and fun. They’re certainly memorable. There’s Tanith Low, a seventy-year-old warrior in the body of a twenty-year-old (sorcery keeps you young, although only after you practice it for a few years, which is something Stephanie is quite relieved to hear). She wields a sword, takes out trolls and other creatures of the night, and can run along ceilings when she’s taken by the mood to emulate Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. There’s China Sorrows, a sorceress and an avid collector of magical books and artifacts, who is far more interested in preserving the status quo than following Skulduggery’s obsession with justice. Indeed, a number of characters in the story are somewhat ambiguous in their leanings, and you should expect sides to be switched as often as socks.
Then there’s Skulduggery himself. He has a lengthy backstory which explains why he’s a living skeleton, although the dark nature that everybody alludes to is somewhat at odds with his ultimate restraint in dealing with his mortal enemy, not to mention the loyalty and affection he shows for his young charge, Stephanie. Indeed, his character reminds me of a congenial sixth Doctor, full of himself, supremely confident, and somewhat bombastic, with the extra frustrating fact that he is often correct in his glowing assessment of his own abilities.
Finally, we have Stephanie — or, as she refers to herself in later books, Valkyrie Cain (in the novel’s universe, everyone has three names: their largely unknown true name, and their given name. Both names have power, and Stephanie finds herself in the frustrating position of being a prisoner because somebody happens to know her given name. Then there’s the third name: the name a sorcerer takes which breaks the power anybody has in knowing your given name. The scene where Stephanie Edgley becomes Valkyrie Cain is a highlight of the novel). Stephanie is a delight: a young woman chaffing against her boring world, who takes to the realm of magic like a duck takes to water. Her wry take on her opponents and on Skulduggery is a joy to read. Indeed, I’d say that Derek Landry has created a character one can fall in love with, except for one thing: she is wholly unconvincing as a twelve-year-old.
As fun as Stephanie is, it’s almost impossible to picture her quick wit, her fearlessness, and her attitude to life as coming from a twelve-year-old. I’m willing to bet that Landry wrote her as sixteen, and was called upon by his editors to lower her age to market the book to a younger audience, which he did without altering her character in any significant way. This makes her character strong, but a bit unbelievable. Worse, I fear that Landry has removed several opportunities to show Stephanie growing in a truly meaningful way.
But this is really the only complaint I have. The story has its raft of cliches, some of which it turns on its head, but it’s all told with a tongue partly in one’s cheek and in supreme confidence in its ability to have fun. The villain, named Serpine, is exactly what you’d expect, gets plenty of chances to go ‘Mwahaha!’ and gloats on cue. There are, however, elements of deeper things in here, of emotional arcs that Stephanie and Skulduggery have to undergo, and of consequences to be followed up upon.
Derek Landry’s Scepter of the Ancients embodies that class of blow-em-up action thriller that calls upon the viewer to check their brain at the door and just enjoy the ride. Although, the brain doesn’t have to be checked at the door so much as stowed under your seat. The ride, however, is real, and great fun.