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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