This substantial volume is the fifth book in a continuing saga and presents the problems one might expect when taken in isolation: characters and story are already well established, there are inevitable references to earlier incidents, and we have yet to see the story’s conclusion. There is the added complication that many of the huge cast of characters exist in an unsettling state of duality: the main protagonist, a 15-year-old sorcerer called Valkyrie Cain, is also Stephanie Edgley, who spends a gloomy Christmas at her parents’ house in a Dublin suburb. But Valkyrie is also destined to become Darquesse, the sorcerer who will destroy the world. A different type of duality is demonstrated by her unusual companion, Skulduggery Pleasant, the ‘Skeleton Detective’, who can produce various faces to hide his skull by tapping symbols etched into his collar-bones.
At one point, Valkyrie expresses her surprise at ‘just how close the weird and the wonderful, and the fierce and the frightening, lived to the rest of the non-magical, mortal, world’. Ireland is a ‘Cradle of Magic’ governed by sorcerers through the ‘Sanctuary’, which has recently moved from Dublin to Roarhaven – ‘a town of prejudice and bigotry, of bitter sorcerers and magical malcontents’. The worry is that if the ostensibly friendly Americans perceive there to be a crisis in Ireland, they will ‘swoop in’ — and stay. Damage also comes at a more personal level: in an attempt to prevent herself from changing into Darquesse, Valkyrie has to undergo a gruesome and vividly described dissection of which she is fully aware, leaving afterwards with her heart and spleen in a bag. In addition, there are repeated and detailed accounts of fights complete with grunts, screams, curses and shouts as heads are kicked, ribs crushed and skulls split, while brains go flying. Often, it’s the girls doing the damage (‘she crushed the skull of a handsome man and tossed him away from her’). Meanwhile, dark forces try to ensure that Darquesse does make an appearance.
The persistent grimness of everyday life and the decay and mistrust of the magical world are leavened by Landy’s dry and ironic wit which laconically draws attention to the banality of the sorcerers’ shabby lives. ‘Nobody likes zombies,’ we are told, and shortly afterwards we meet a pair ‘living out of a refrigerated truck (with) two flat tyres’. The rapid succession of incidents ensures that the book is consistently entertaining, provided the new reader is not over-concerned with identifying all the characters. Clearly, however, many readers are intimately aware of who they are – the book ends with a separate short story written for a reader who created a new character to appear in the novel. The violence and gruesome detail make this book more suitable for those aged over 14, but the evident popularity of the series will probably be the main factor in determining who reads it.