Monthly Archives: November 2013

Review: Last Stand of Dead Men

Skulduggery Pleasant: Last Stand of Dead Men
Harper Collins
2013
ISBN-10: 000748920X

Review by Chloe Buckley

The title of the latest instalment of Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series is misleading, for it implies a finality and resolution rejected by the book itself. Indeed, Skulduggery Pleasant: Last Stand of Dead Men is the penultimate rather than the last instalment of the phenomenally popular series, and has caused a stir among the fans for the way it plunges characters and readers into chaos. Long-standing favourites among the cast of characters are killed off and shocking revelations are made about others, with the novel ending on the precipice of a bleak and uncertain future. As a penultimate novel, Last Stand of Dead Men is skilful in the way it whets the readers’ appetites for the final book, due for release in 2014.

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Skulduggery Pleasant has been growing in popularity since the series began in 2007, and Last Stand of Dead Men became the number one children’s book in the UK soon after its release. At a hefty 600+ pages, the novel is no light read and constitutes a serious investment of reading time, especially given its 11+ age rating. Indeed, despite Harper Collins’ controversial age rating labels that appear on all the Skulduggery books, the series has, like much contemporary children’s and young adult series fiction, found enthusiastic fans in all age categories. A scan of the latest online reviews and book blogs reveals wide-ranging endorsement of the novel, from critics, parents, hardened horror fans and teens.

Skulduggery Pleasant has perhaps captured so many imaginations because it manages to synthesize a wealth of different narrative forms. It is difficult to define what genre the series is, since it hybridizes disparate elements of the gothic, the Weird, fantasy, horror, action and adventure. As a whole, the series tells the story of Stephanie, twelve years old in the first book, and her encounter with a hidden subculture of mages, necromancers and magical creatures. As she grows into her teens, she is subsumed (some might even say, consumed) by this world, and drawn into a series of conflicts with ghosts and monsters, outer gods and inter-dimensional creatures, sinister assassins and global plots to force the magical community to reveal their existence to humans. Gothic elements such as haunting, trauma, body horror, mental breakdown and disintegration are woven into a narrative structure that is broadly based on traditional hero fantasy. As such, the series is continually negotiating a conflict within itself: the tendency towards fragmentation and breakdown on the one hand, and the age-old story of the heroes’ eventual triumph over evil on the other. Frequently violent, packed full of fast-paced action scenes, the books have been lauded as great for getting boys into reading.  

Landy’s books are also full of Whedon-esque banter, and often employ a range of horror references, cashing in on the subcultural capital of various geek and fan cultures as they rise up to the mainstream. The books are also excessive in every sense, with each instalment of the series piling on the horror, the body count, the shocking revelations, and the jokes, in a bid to out-do the last book. Above all, Skulduggery Pleasant is fun, but its playfulness is infused with a bleak vision of human interaction and a murky morality that threatens to consume its characters.

Skulduggery Pleasant's protagonist, Valkyrie Cain, is certainly a post-Buffy heroine.

Skulduggery Pleasant’s protagonist, Valkyrie Cain, is certainly a post-Buffy heroine.

In one sense, the penultimate book in any series of this kind is deeply problematic, paradoxically embodying everything that makes series fiction so rich and interesting whilst also being obliged to signal its own conclusion and resolution. I have previously argued that contemporary series fiction was deeply flawed, and that the form’s necessity to propagate itself (not least because of pressures from publishers who enjoy the guaranteed profits from established series) leading eventually to the death of good story. These days, I’m inclined to think otherwise and would advocate the view that there is great potential in series fiction for innovation and creativity. The tendency towards increasing chaos, the necessary refusal of neat restitution, the way the form demands increasing excess from the writer might, in fact, allow series fiction to open out into new, untold stories.

However, the extra-textual material Last Stand of Dead Men – its reviews and publicity –points to the end of all that, for end the series must. What is interesting about this novel, however, is the way that it insists that restitution and satisfying resolution are going to be hard to come by.  Indeed, much of the young adult gothic and dark fantasy series fiction that I’ve been reading over the past few years seems insistent on rejecting the happy ending offered by traditional fantasy narratives. Recent works by Anthony Horowitz, Darren Shan, Joseph Delaney and Lemony Snicket are certainly more Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings. So much so that this increased tendency towards bleak conclusions has itself become a kind of standardized trope. How will Landy negotiates this impasse in his final novel? Will restitution and resolution triumph, with norms reestablished and characters healed? Or, will the narrative disintegrate into chaos and death? Alternatively, perhaps there is a way between these two poles that can somehow both offer resolution and retain the promise of continued development offered by the series format.

As for a verdict on the Last Stand of Dead Men itself, the novel is not going to appeal to readers new to the series. This book is really for fans only. The novel presents an excessive array of characters, an expansive storyline with multiple threads, and the action jumps around between multiple time frames and locations. Overall, the novel feels a little like a fevered attempt to get all the pieces in places ready for the next instalment. That said, the fevered excesses of the book are also what makes it interesting. It is also witty, funny and continues with the series’ exploration of complex character development and murky moral dilemmas. This is a ‘romp’, but one that successfully maintains a sense of creeping dread and foreboding.

Chloe Buckley

Are you a Skulduggery Pleasant fan? What did you make of this latest novel?

What do you think of series fiction? Is it good for creativity and innovation or does it lead to repetition, ridiculous plotting and the death of a good story?  

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What do 16-18 year old readers think of Gothic fiction?

By Catherine Spooner

At the Beyond Twilight: Young Adult Gothic Fiction event we ran on 27 September 2013, we invited participants to fill in a questionnaire about what they thought about Young Adult Gothic Fiction. Twenty-two attendees took up this invitation, too few to represent a scientific sample, but their answers made interesting reading nevertheless – offering a quick snapshot of what some contemporary readers, aged between 16 and 18, think about Gothic.

Students and teachers from Maghull School at Beyond Twilight, 27 Sept 2013.

Students and teachers from Maghull School at Beyond Twilight, 27 Sept 2013.

What is Gothic?

Readers were asked how they would define Gothic fiction. The most common association they had was with ‘dark’ or ‘darkness’ – eight out of twenty-two readers used this word. Six readers also used the word ‘horror’ – although sometimes to explain that Gothic is not straight horror, but mixed with something else. It’s ‘a combination of horror and romance, which Horace Walpole said was his combination of, as he deemed it, fanciful medieval romance and the strict realism of the 18th century’, said one particularly well-read respondent. My favourite comment, however, identified Gothic as ‘A decaying world of absolute consuming passion and recklessness. Characters should disturb the reader in every sense.’

Gothic enjoyment

When asked what they enjoyed about Gothic fiction, seven readers identified the fact that it was in some way surprising or different to the norm. ‘I like the imagination behind Gothic novels as they are so different to normal books,’ said one. Other features commented on were a sense of mystery and the potential to disturb. The idea that Gothic fiction affects the reader’s emotions in a particularly powerful way recurred in several responses. One reader liked ‘the fact that whether the characters we find completely ridiculous or completely endearing, we are, or should be, somewhat haunted by them.’ Another stated, ‘I love Gothic fiction and the idea that after reading a page of someone else’s work my mind is provoked, and I am left disturbed and scared. That is strangely exciting!’

Favourite Gothic novels

Despite the supposed backlash, Twilight evidently retains huge popularity. Six readers identified it as their favourite Gothic novel, with a further vote for New Moon. The Brontës prove perennially popular, however, with four mentions of Jane Eyre and five of Wuthering Heights. ‘I am completely in love with the book. The story completely devastated me and haunted my thoughts for a long time after I read it… and probably forever will’, one reader declared of Emily Brontë’s classic. We were pleased to note that two of our featured authors, Marcus Sedgwick and Chris Priestley, got a mention too!

Gothic’s current popularity

What is fuelling the current trend for Gothic fiction in children’s and young adult publishing? Five readers blamed the influence of Twilight. But others sought reasons in the nature of the teenage experience. ‘Teens are moody!’ explained one reader. Another considered Gothic is popular ‘because it makes young adult readers feel part of a mysterious, exciting culture.’ Other answers were particularly eloquent. One thought that ‘During the crucial teenage years, many teenagers are exploring their individuality and learning about the secrets of the world our childhood has been shielded from. The Gothic genre provokes teenagers explore their world, and their own minds, further.’ Another suggested that, ‘Young adults, or teens, need a place to escape to. We are in this limbo sort of age when we have more freedom than we ever had, but are still slightly confined by our parents. Through Gothic fiction we can lose ourselves in the characters’ torments and reckless acts and still feel like we have rebelled, through the book, when we have done nothing at all! I once heard that “hell is a teenage girl.” That will always stick with me and interest me.’

Tell us what YOU think!

Do you agree with our respondents? We’d love to hear your comments on any of these questions!

Speakers at Beyond Twilight. L-R: Celia Rees, Paula Morris, Chloe Buckley, Catherine Spooner, Chris Priestley, Marcus Sedgwick, Sarah Singleton.

Speakers at Beyond Twilight. L-R: Celia Rees, Paula Morris, Chloe Buckley, Catherine Spooner, Chris Priestley, Marcus Sedgwick, Sarah Singleton.