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Magic, murder and mayhem for Skulduggery
The Faceless Ones - Derek Landy
Member Name: brokenangel
The Faceless Ones - Derek Landy
Date: 07/08/12, updated on 25/05/13 (67 review reads)
Advantages: It is likely to appeal to it's teen audience
Disadvantages: It's not likely to appeal to anyone else
== Publication history ==
It's useful to note now, if you're not up to date with children's fiction, that this is the third in a series of books based around the partnership between Skulduggery Pleasant (a skeleton) and Valkyrie Cain (an adolescent girl with a magical genetic heritage). I think this is very useful to know, as (despite the rather huge hint on the front cover) it took me a couple of chapters to realise that (a) Skulduggery was a skeleton and (b) that Valkyrie is a 14 year old girl. (In my defence, the book opens like a typical crime story, and so I pictured a fat, balding middle aged detective, waiting for his nicotine/coffee fix while his thirtyish female sidekick wondered when she'd finally get a promotion and be able to run her own cases. This probably also explains why I was so surprised the first time the male 'detective' sprinkled dust in the air to look for evidence of magic. (Magic? I was thinking, where are the doughnuts?)
So, I think that although you can read the book as a stand alone, as I did, you would probably do best to either read it in context, or read up a little on the previous books first. Or actually bother to take in the image on the front cover, instead of just being repelled by it! Once I had finished reading the whole story, I did some research on the internet to find out about the previous books, but by then I had already been introduced to key 'back episodes' through dialogue in the story, so further research didn't really add anything to my understanding. What it did do was reveal quite a large teen fan base who love the books, which is useful to know as they are the real target audience for these stories, not Dickens-loving-English-teachers. I also learned that, although originally contracted to write three instalments in the series, Landy's success has meant that there is a fourth coming out in April and that he is considering writing nine altogether. That means that if you do love this book, you won't have long to wait before the next instalment - and in the meantime, you can catch up on the adventures you missed!
== The concept ==
Someone is killing teleporters. But who? And why? As the story opens, Skulduggery and Valkyrie are illicitly investigating the latest crime scene. Although they have been barred from officially working the case, they have a few ideas of their own and begin to join the dots long before Skulduggery's replacement as 'Prime Detective' has managed to work out, well, anything. It doesn't help that there is a spy inside the Sanctuary (the magician's council), and Skulduggery thinks it might be the top man. In these difficult political times, who can they trust? More crucially, even if our magical sleuths can work out who is responsible, can they stop the end of the world dawning?
The storyline is fairly standard then, which allows readers to follow it easily. In fact, I read the whole book in just over four hours and found that, despite reference to various strange magical acts, I was able to follow events easily. There is nothing unusual here, no stunning twists and turns or confusing explanations. This meant that I found it an easy read, but a fairly dull one. I suspect that the target age group might respond rather differently though.
As the story progresses, Skulduggery and Valkyrie alternatively fight the bad guys and collaborate with the good guys, working primarily with characters who have featured in the previous two books. I think this will please readers of the earlier novels, who will enjoy seeing familiar characters act in familiar ways. I found that, although I had not encountered these characters before, sufficient back story would be provided at some point which would allow me to understand their role and their relationship with other characters.
However, sometimes I was left wondering for a fair few pages why a character whose name I'd never heard before was reacting so strongly to another character. These moments were not exactly frustrating in themselves - in fact, it can be quite an effective narrative technique, if it is deliberate - but I had the sense that I should know why and that I was somehow missing something in reading those scenes without knowing the back history. Overall, I don't feel that it adversely affected my reading experience, but I did feel that maybe a brief guide to characters for newbies might have been a useful inclusion at the beginning of the book.
Gradually it becomes clear that an ancient evil is about to be unleashed to wreak destruction on planet Earth, and only Valkyrie and a 17 year old boy have the power to stop it. The Faceless Ones, as the book's tag informs us, are coming.
I prefer my threats to be more realistic, but this is a tale of magical people, so that isn't really a sensible gripe! This is very similar to Pullman's 'Northern Lights' trilogy: a veil between worlds will be pierced and unimaginable evil will pour in... However, I found Pullman's worlds rather more convincing. The action is so frenetic in this story that there is little build up regarding this threat. Yes, they are terrifying. Yes, they will destroy the earth. However, I felt that a bit more time actually developing the history of these creatures more might have been quite interesting to read and made them seem more of a threat.
== Initial thoughts ==
The chapters are titled as well as numbered, and the first one is 'the scene of the crime'. It's not especially original, but nor are the opening lines:
'The dead man was in the living room, face down on the floor beside the coffee table. His name had been Cameron Light, but that was back when his heart had a beat and his lungs had breath.'
The writing is clear and easy to follow, adopting a largely factual and rather prosaic tone, although there are moments, like in the extract above, when Landy adds a slight creative flourish. As I mentioned before, this is a quick read that won't challenge readers in terms of its style or vocabulary or ideas.
At the beginning, I found that I didn't really care about the deaths enough to feel involved in the plot line. I didn't know these characters, and even though Valkyrie avoids looking at the corpse there is no sense of trauma. In fact, as Skulduggery casually numbers the theories his young assistant reels off, the scene feels lightly comedic in tone, rather than tragic. Surely death should feel tragic? I'm not suggesting readers should feel depressed, merely that there should be some impetus to catch the killer. (I'm picturing a gruff detective grinding out a cigarette and snarling "We'll catch him, by God, we will catch this evil man." (Ok, so I quite like dramatic scenes.))
This continued throughout the book. When characters were seriously wounded, there was no real concern felt by either other characters of myself. If bad characters were hurt, or even killed, they were dispatched and forgotten about within a line of text. If good characters were hurt then they were quickly patched up by the magic doctor. (And if you're a living skeleton of a dead man, can your enemies really kill you again?) Furthermore, they would be characters that had parachuted into the text and that I had no emotional connection to, so even if they had limbs hanging off I didn't so much as blink. I find it slightly concerning that life and death is treated so casually in books devoured by hundreds of thousands of teens. Shouldn't we be encouraging them to read crime books in which life is fiercely valued by all but the sadistic killer? I appreciate that there are shades of grey, but there is simply no opportunity for empathy here.
Perhaps the closest I came to empathising with a character was when the tough Valkyrie (capable of fighting grown men and winning) broke a tooth and cried. However, in an attempt to emphasise her age, Landy gives her concerns as (a) her appearance and (b) what her mother might say. Perhaps this is a realistic representation of the teenage brain, and I'm sure that these would be my concerns if I was in her position, but I'm pretty certain that my dominant concern would be the chaos still unfolding around men, including men who wanted to kill me. Then again, I said it before: Valkyrie is tough.
== Further reflections ==
In an attempt to inject some morality into the book, Landy has several characters criticise Skulduggery, some quite harshly: he is told that he relishes being in battle and killing people; thrown out of a place of learning; called uncivilised; and repeatedly lectured on putting a 14 year old girl into danger. Skulduggery's blank response to all this seems at odds with reviews I have read of the previous two books which speak of the detective's concern and care for his protégée. In 'The Faceless Ones' he does not appear to be overly concerned about Valkyrie, but then she is not generally overly concerned for herself. It does feel like the author is trying to distance the reader somewhat from Skulduggery and his actions and encouraging us to sympathise with Valkyrie. This crystallises at the end of the story, where there is one big surprise awaiting keen fans.
So, what kept me reading, other than wanting to know what I was talking about at my book group meeting? There are some nice touches of humour as you read through, including moments when Valkyrie behaves exactly as one would expect a grumpy 14 year old girl to act. There are some characters who are largely comic, such as the wannabe serial killer who has yet to claim his first victim and was accidentally left behind at a rest stop by the police officers meant to be transporting him to jail. There is a lightly amusing episode in which a seductress extracts a valuable book from a simpering male victim. None of these episodes were funny in a sustained or laugh-out-loud way, but they broke up the story nicely and some of them did make me chuckle.
Something that simultaneously intrigued and irritated me was the build up to the next instalment in the franchise. Throughout this story, a big secret is hinted at involving two of the characters but never revealed. I did find myself wondering what this would be, so Landy was successful in that sense, although I don't think it'll bother me sufficiently to make me read the next episode in Skulduggery's life. Something I found more interesting was the hints involving Valkyrie's reflection. Apparently, it is possible to send your reflection out into the world to attend school, do your homework and eat dinner with your parents, while you slip into ninja clothes and fight baddies. If this were true, I'd want one. However, Landy suggests a couple of times that the reflection is rather more than a convenient doppelganger. It appears to have feelings and to be hiding memories from Valkyrie, who is too tired to really give it her attention. I sense a storyline coming up, although I may be wrong, and I would be genuinely interested to see how that develops.
My overall conclusion is that this book is perfectly readable but very insubstantial. The comic book violence is so un-frightening that you can skim battle scenes without really worrying about the main characters. The concept of the Faceless Ones and their ability to possess human bodies is disturbing, but I believe that they are not described in sufficiently vivid detail to give young teens nightmares. There are some nice touches of humour and odd episodes along the way, but the book itself is likely to be rather unmemorable. As with all books in a series, it is preferable, although in this case not essential, that you have some familiarity with those books before it. Similarly, there are problems, including a surprise twist at the end, that will not be resolved until the next instalment, so you will need to be prepared to either ignore the questions that bubble up after reading this book, or read the next six books. Personally? I'm going to leave the rest of this teen-orientated series to the teens!
Summary: One to read as part of the series, if it appeals to you.