Is this — could this be — is this a post that isn’t about books? Ha. Nope, it’s not. Get used to it, because I like talking about books.
Recently, Engie @ Musings From Neville’s Navel convinced me to read the Skulduggery Pleasant series. Well, I’m not entirely sure if she convinced me directly, but she certainly wrote a number of blog posts encouraging people to do so, and whether or not she directed these comments at me personally, I took them that way anyway. I’ve worked my way through the first six books, and I think they just keep getting better.
Leaving aside the general adventures and action-filled plots, Derek Landy’s managed to do something more remarkable to me: he’s managed to give me a series of books that subverts a lot of common YA tropes in a way that makes his work seem not only more original, but also much more realistic, and give his main character (Valkyrie Cain) a lot more personality.
So I thought I’d talk about some of those things which are awesome.
Things Skulduggery Pleasant has which other YA books rarely have:
Parents who actually contribute to the storyline
While Valkyrie doesn’t spend a great deal of time at home (she has a magical reflection that takes her place to stop her parents from worrying), her parents are still a part of the storyline, and they’ve got personalities of their own. Her dad likes to make embarrassing and odd comments, for example when he encounters her boyfriend Fletcher for the first time. And even when they’re not present, she doesn’t forget about them completely — in fact, the thought of her parents motivates several of Valkyrie’s most important decisions.
A sensible response to creepy obsessed vampires
Avoiding as many spoilers as I can, Valkyrie finds herself in the position where a century-old vampire believes himself to be in love with her. He’s every bit as stalkerish, overly intense, and generally full of paranormal romance cliches as the ones we see portrayed as romantic in other books. The difference is that Val recognises this and after first telling him to back off and stop being so intense, eventually takes it further and tells him to leave her alone because he’s freaking her out.
Recognition that attraction =/= love
This relates to the point above, but Val’s the most sensible sixteen-year-old girl I’ve come across in fiction when it comes to relationships, because she’s able to tell the difference between being attracted to someone and being in love with them, and just because she’d happily make out with them, that doesn’t mean she wants to be in a relationship with them. Finding someone hot isn’t the same as loving them, and for once we get to see a character recognising that.
Romantic relationships are only ever in the background
Again, I know we’re talking about how this series approaches romance quite a lot, and that doesn’t really seem right because frankly, the books don’t talk about it much. It’s something that goes on in the background, and occasionally affects the plot in terms of who is on which side and whether they can be relied upon to help or whether they’re sulking somewhere on the other side of the world, but doesn’t dominate. The characters know what the priorities are, so they’re not busy making out when they should be fighting.
Interactions between the normal world and the magical one
Ages ago I remarked that all the YA I read would probably make me more open-minded about the supernatural, yet in most books the response to all that stuff is still, “But that’s impossible!” and then people freak out. We get a variety of responses in this series, but a lot of them are pretty realistic — either thinking magic is awesome and wanting to learn, thinking magic is dangerous and trying to keep others away from it, or wanting to write about it and therefore get famous from selling the story.
Basic safety measures
This seems like a silly one, but Landy makes sure that he almost always mentions Valkyrie putting on her seat belt whenever she gets into Skulduggery’s Bently. Not only that, but more than once Skulduggery reminds her to do so. It’s the most trivial thing, and yet the point is clear: “No point having magical powers if you die in a car crash before you can save the world.” That little touch of realism sometimes helps to ground the story, and makes me laugh even when it doesn’t.
Death and violence
A lot of YA books shy away from death. Some don’t. Some, like The Hunger Games, force you to confront it in every other chapter. But in others, very few major characters actually die, and those that do often come back in some way. Landy isn’t afraid to kill people off, even if there are a few temporary deaths as well. (I mean, now might be a good time to mention that the titular character is actually already dead, since he’s a skeleton.) There are also some pretty violent scenes, although I’m not so keen on some of those; in book six there was a particularly gross one with an eyeball that I really didn’t enjoy. :/ Eyeballs, dude.
And finally, wit.
Sass, sarcastic one-liners, and pop-culture references are more common in YA books now than they used to be, I think. People have realised that funny characters are often more enjoyable. So this isn’t quite such a unique trait, but it’s definitely something that I appreciate about the books. And thus to finish this post, I’ll leave you with a few entertaining quotes.
“Personally, I think knees should be kept for the eight or ninth date, or the wedding day. As a nice surprise, you know? ‘Oh, my darling, you have knees! I never would have thought!”
― Derek Landy, Mortal Coil
“But if you can confront your inner demons—”
“I did confront my inner demon. I punched him in the face and he exploded.”
Valkyrie had to laugh. “But now he’s back.”
“Of course he’s back. He’s resourceful. He is my inner demon, after all.”
― Derek Landy, Death Bringer
“What are we going to do when we get into the temple, anyway? Are we going to fight our way through the Necromancers on our own?”
“No, we’re going to find a way to let our friends in, and we’ll let them fight while we stand by and look smug.”
“I like that plan.”
“It has its moments.”
― Derek Landy, Death Bringer