Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's Pleasant, Skulduggery Pleasant

I've been wanting to listen to a Skulduggery Pleasant audiobook since the first Odyssey Awards were announced. With my scads of free ear space, I grabbed a library copy of book 2: Playing with Fire and started listening. The eponymous Pleasant is a living skeleton whose job is to keep evil creatures with the usual designs on world domination from getting their wish. He's a witty bon vivant with a great tailor in the bargain.

In the first book (now called Scepter of the Ancients, or maybe that's its original British title), 12-year-old Stephanie Edgley thought Skulduggery was a character in her favorite -- now dead -- uncle's detective novels, but when Stephanie learns that she has inherited her uncle's wealthy estate, she gets the skeleton detective in the bargain. He tells her that she is from an ancient race of evil-fighting heroes (blah blah blah), and that he's going to teach her all she needs to know to fulfill her destiny. They go on to save the world (natch!), and Stephanie adopts a new name (because if the evil ones know her real name, they can use that to defeat her): Valkyrie Cain.

In Playing with Fire, Skulduggery and Valkyrie discover that more evil is out there, in the form of the deliciously named Baron Vengeous. The Baron is intent on reviving the Grotesquery -- a human-like creature made up of handed-down body parts of other evil beings, and he's hired the services of a vampire named Dusk and one Billy-Ray Sanguine (a good old boy) to do his dirty work. It's all in aid of bringing back the Faceless Ones. Or some such. The details really doesn't matter. What does matter is the nail-biting danger in which Skulduggery, Valkyrie and their allies find themselves in nearly every chapter and how they shoot, blow up, stomp on, and employ other forms of mayhem to extricate themselves. And they do it while casually exchanging quips and heroic dry humor in the tradition of Indiana Jones or James Bond.

The series reader, Rupert Degas, takes this suave heroism and makes it his narrative concept, reading with an irony and humor that is utterly enjoyable. He reads quickly, without sounding rushed, and has a very lovely Irish lilt that makes for great listening. He is skilled at creating and sustaining multiple characters -- from evil geniuses to mean high-school girls; I found all of his voices to be authentic sounding, if a bit over-the-top. But that excess is definitely in keeping with the general tone of the proceedings.

The audiobook uses a jazzy drum-rim-based musical interlude between chapters that works nicely, often ending with a whispered "yeah" for emphasis. At the beginning and end of the novel, this music goes on for quite some time. There are a few sound effects sprinkled throughout -- most enjoyably, the sound of an egg cracking and the yolk splatting on the ground in accompaniment of the description of what has been done to some character's head.

And while, yes, I did enjoy the egg sound effect, mostly I find the violence of this series to be just a bit much. There's a lot of dead people at the end of this book, but they've died in that cartoonish action-adventure movie way, so it really doesn't matter. The set-piece battles got a bit tiresome -- since they didn't seem to ever get us anywhere: Skulduggery and Valkyrie were fighting the same villains over and over. This, coupled with the copious numbers of evil characters and why each was evil (in their own special way) just makes the whole book a bit of a mishmash in my head. Degas' performance is the most interesting part of it.

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