Children's & Middle Grade · Fantasy · YA

Skulduggery Pleasant, a Feminist Middle-Grade Goth-Action-Fantasy Genius of a Book

I don’t think I’ve talked about Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy on this blog before, which is an inexplicable oversight on my part because it’s one of my all-time favorite books! Quite a genre-bender, it walks the line between middle grade and YA, not to mention fantasy and horror. I like to think of it as “The Dresden Files for kids,” or “Harry Potter for goths,” or “Jack Skellington but as an Irish detective.” It’s sarcastic and witty, sometimes bordering on satirical with its clever use of tropes, but always coming back to an intense payoff. You should read it.

Skulduggery Pleasant coverToday, though, I specifically want to talk about how this is a feminist book. It’s not overt, I don’t think the word “feminism” or anything similar is ever used, and I don’t know anything about the author’s intentions, but it is one and that makes it all the better. For starters, the main character is a girl, which is already semi-rare for the urban-fantasy-action-detective genre in either middle grade or adult fiction. Her name is Stephanie, and she’s knows full well that she wants to learn magic, a refreshing change from all the “whoops I’m accidentally special and I just want to be normal” heroines in YA. She’s smart, tenacious, and can hold her own with adults. The basic plot is that she meets Skulduggery Pleasant, the skeleton detective pictured on the cover, and hijinx ensue.

On top of Stephanie’s coolness, there are a variety of other women in the book — overwhelmingly beautiful librarians, shallow irritating normies, badass sword warriors, members of the magical council, and Stephanie’s very normal but supportive mom, to name a few. It’s a scene with Stephanie’s mom where I first noticed the feminist overtones, as a matter of fact. They’re driving somewhere and the car breaks down:

“Well,” her mother said, looking at the engine, “at least that’s still there.”

“Do you know anything about engines?” Stephanie asked.

“That’s why I have a husband, so I don’t have to. Engines and shelves, that’s why men were invented.”

Stephanie made a mental note to learn about engines before she turned eighteen. She wasn’t too fussed about the shelves.

― Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant

That’s totally the kind of thing I was thinking at that age, and it was the first major indication that I was reading something feminist. If you happen to have a husband and he happens to be great at engines and shelves, awesome, but why the expectation? What’s that based on? Stephanie’s parents are good and nice people, but it’s really telling that her mother just assumes these things and Stephanie doesn’t. Stephanie assumes she can do things herself, and foresees the possibility that she might need to.

Carrying on, it’s a great book, I enjoyed the heck out of it, but I was also disappointed when — MINOR SPOILERS HENCEFORTH — it turns out part of Skulduggery’s backstory is the villain’s murder of Skulduggery’s wife and child. I’m hardly going to quit a good book because of yet another fridging, but I was disappointed. It becomes a plot point that Stephanie is threatened in order to reach Skulduggery. But wait. Close to the end, (after Stephanie has taken the magical name Valkyrie), this happens:

He hesitated. “Serpine used my wife and child as a weapon against me. In order to do so, he had to kill them. He took my family’s death and he made it about me. Valkyrie, when you die, it will be your death and yours alone. Let it come to you on your own terms.” She nodded.

“Valkyrie Cain,” he said, “it has been an absolute pleasure knowing you.”

― Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant

Stephanie has been learning magic, and Skulduggery always treats her like an equal, even when he’s functioning as her teacher. He never treats her like a child, or a lackey, or a hindrance. They’re partners in detection and saving the world. And at the moment you least suspect it, he takes a potential fridging and turns it into the opposite, recognizing Stephanie’s agency in anything that happens next. The book may be called Skulduggery Pleasant, and it’s certainly about Stephanie describing him from the outside as in many other books, but it’s special because Stephanie isn’t nothing compared to him. The whole story, in a subtle and delightful way, is about how meeting the supernatural empowers her, how she sees the life she wants and insists others work around it.

Read it, and if you can, get the audiobook. Rupert Degas is the ideal narrator. I’m several books into the series now and the first one is still far and away the best, but there are lots more for after you get hooked!

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