“It’s been three years, and everyone’s favourite skeleton is back from the dead… again.”
Okay, I’ll admit it: When it comes to Skulduggery Pleasant, I’m biased.
The Skeleton Detective was to me what Harry Potter was to so many others; while they dreamed of owls bearing letters I pictured a sleek black Bentley pulling into my school’s driveway, while they argued the merits of their various houses I was trying to choose between adept and elemental, not to mention agonizing over my chosen name.
Oh, and I spent a good three books trying to figure out whether I was more attracted to Tanith Low or China Sorrows, as well as having a weird Springheeled Jack phase I’d rather not talk about.
So of course, when Derek Landy brought the series to a close, I was sad to see it go. However, when he decided to reboot the universe a scant three years later, my emotions were a little bit more complicated. I was overjoyed, yes, and excited for sure, but mostly I was just terrified. My expectations, as well as those of the fandom at large, would undoubtedly be unrealistically high. Even if the book did well, and introduced a whole new generation to my favourite dynamic duo, could it ever live up to the nostalgia-steeped version of the original stories I’d come to cherish so much?
As it turns out: yes. And also no. It’s complicated.
It’s got to be said, there’s a lot this book gets right. For contemporary audiences, representation is not just a nice touch, it’s a deal-breaker, and Resurrection feels realistically diverse without ever delving into tokenism. Of the new central characters one is a gay man, one is black, and one is proudly and unabashedly genderqueer, and all are indispensable to the plot. We are informed of these character traits in a way that feels organic and natural to each character – whether that’s through an off-the-cuff joke or a out-and-proud declaration – and it’s accepted by the other characters without question.
My only caveat to this praise is that in some cases, it just doesn’t feel realistic. I love how the genderqueer Never is handled for the most part – I love how they are allowed to be complex and fallible and make bad decisions that feel possible due to their age – but I’m in two minds about how their transness is handled. I mean, true, this is a world of magic in which people can teleport, turn invisible or turn to stone, someone changing their gender-presentation on a daily basis might not be that much of a shock to those who have grown up around magic. However, the fact that Never’s identity is accepted so blithely feels naive, given the way that the rest of the world is painted.
You see, this is a darker version of the Skulduggery Pleasant world, one where the central motif is often supremacy. One crucial thread of the story (spoilers ahead) follows a group whose very purpose is to instigate a war with mortals, for no other reason than their inherent inferiority. This prejudiced way of thinking even finds its way into the non-magical world, as Landy’s version of reality contains a billionaire-turned-president almost as sexist and racist as the one we find in our own.
Given this choice, Never’s ability to safely be as queer as they are feels like a clash between Landy’s own views, and the climate they have created for Skulduggery’s world. While it’s clear that Derek himself cares for Never and doesn’t believe their identity should be policed or constrained, he does less of a good job convincing the reader that the people they are around would believe the same way. Of course, it’s sad that queer normalisation is so unrealistic that it has to count as a critique, but it weakens what is otherwise some of the best worldbuilding in the series.
That aside, the realism of Skulduggery Pleasant is perhaps the most sophisticated it has ever been, both in terms of the characters and the world they inhabit. The rise of The Church Of The Faceless Ones and China Sorrow’s attempt to control it, as well as the slow-burning progress of the anti-Sanctuary, feel remarkably prescient given the state of our own world. In Skulduggery’s version of reality too, those who believe in their superiority have been emboldened, and those ideologies that for a while fell out of favour have been sanitised to the point of public acceptance. This culture of hatred pervades the whole story, and hangs like a shadow over even the more childlike elements of the story.
Valkyrie is not a child anymore, and neither are we, and as such we are able to look at their universe through new, more world-weary eyes.
The same is true of the characters we have grown to love. In past books, Valkyrie has been shielded from the consequences of her actions, and the extent of her arrogance and recklessness have been downplayed to suit the teenage sensibilities of Landy’s audience. Now though, the invisibility that comes with childhood is gone, and we see her slow decline into trauma and disillusionment as a result.
Despite this arc being the part of the book that I saw garner the most crique, it might be one of my favourite elements. Her mental illness is uncomfortable and hard to digest, but it is utterly authentic. It strikes without warning and has real consequences, and it is not something that can be fixed through hijinks or witty quips from her partner. Yes, it’s sad to see the laugh-a-minute dialogue replaced with something more somber and introspective, but it is necessary to establish the state the characters are in. Plus, I daresay the psychotic ramblings of corrupted!Skulduggery more than make up for the absence of hilarity.
They are, afterall, no longer the heroes of our childhood.
With that said, by the end of the first book, there is at least a glimmer of hope. Just as Val holds her first flickering flame at the end of the first book of Phase One, Val ends this first installment with the first spark of recovery. Despite some of the plot feeling messy and unfocused, I closed the book with that same thrill of anticipation and dread as I did in 2007, when I wondered what on earth Derek would throw at my beloved characters next.
With so many threads unresolved and so many characters mysteriously absent, I find myself asking the same question, and hoping against hope I get my answers soon lest I completely lose my mind.
I guess some things never change.