Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Something pleasant this way comes

When it's a Friday and you just got off from work and you've nothing planned for the night, I usually kill several hours in different bookstores. I decided to check out PowerBooks in Greenbelt. It's been a while since I went there and bought something. The last time I went there, I got depressed; there's barely any new stock, and their shelves keep decreasing in number. Even the coffeeshop wasn't there anymore. (Fact: I met my soulmate in that same PowerBooks in that now-disappeared coffeeshop.)

Anyway, I stayed for more than 2 hours in PowerBooks when I realized I had to buy a book. (I felt guilty for having used up space, and, besides, I was in a buying mood anyway.) I picked up Derek Landy's Scepter of the Ancients, the first book in the Skulduggery Pleasant series. I had no expectations whatsoever about this YA novel; I was just glad that it didn't mention Harry Potter in any of its blurbs. I hate it when I read "Harry Potter fans will not be disappointed" and other blurbs something like it. Publishers should stop doing this -- it's misleading. I have yet to read a book that comes close to the experience of reading Rowling's HP books.

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Derek Landy's novel so much I read it in a day. Landy engages the reader from page 1. Stephanie, the book's main character, inherits his uncle's estate, including all the magical elements that go with it. Unknown to Stephanie, it turns out that his uncle had his hands on the scepter of the ancients, a magical object so powerful that any sorcerer who wields it can be unstoppable. When Stephanie spends her first night alone in his uncle's huge mansion, it becomes clear that someone wants it badly. Enter Skulduggery Pleasant, a detective who was her uncle's close friend, who puts everything in perspective for Stephanie. The friendship between Skulduggery and Stephanie becomes inevitable; it's this friendship that allows Stephanie to become involved in the world of magic. As it becomes evident that the sorcerer Serpine is out to get the scepter of ancients, Skulduggery and Stephanie tries to find it first. (Oh, and did I mention that Skulduggery is a talking skeleton?)

Reading Landy's writing feels like browsing through a screenplay. All the characters find themselves in different action-filled scenarios from one chapter to the next: battling ghouls, outwitting vampires, encountering vengeful sorcerers and mages. Somehow, the novel feels like a pitch to those Hollywood execs, hungry for ideas for the next summer youth-centered blockbuster. Still, it is this feature that makes the book a fun and enjoyable read. Children would definitely love it and probably see a part of themselves in either Stephanie (the fish out of water) or Skulduggery (the rebel).

The novel's plot can be formulaic sometimes. There are episodes when one is reminded of pivotal scenes in Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Jim Butcher's series The Dresden Files. The characters are oddly reminiscent of other personas too. Serpine, the book's bad guy, is Voldemort without the malice; Skulduggery reminds you of Harry Dresden. Nevertheless, these formulas mend together seemlessly in the book's 400 pages.

An interesting concept put forth by this book had something to do with names, although Jim Butcher has a similar idea in his series. Each person basically has 3 names: the name he's born with, the name he's given, and the name he takes. In the wizarding world, you shouldn't be telling your given name to anyone because sorcerers can use it to take control over your actions. The only way to counter this is to find a name that encapsulates your personality. Once the name comes to you, it protects your given name from those who can abuse it. In the novel, Stephanie experiences being forced to go against her will by China Sorrows, a beautiful sorceress who manages to learn Stephanie's name. It is only when Stephanie takes on the name Valkyrie Cain when Sorrows hold over Stephanie disappears.

Read this book if:
  1. You feel like reading another book with sorcerers and mages.
  2. You want a quick read to kill the time.
  3. You want to read something that's "movie-ready."