Review of The Dying of the Light by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant is not a series for the weak-hearted. It is a dark, hilarious and 1600_1200_skul2addictive thrill of a series, and unlike most fantasy novels, none of the female characters ever have to take their clothes off just to be noticed. (Seriously, Fantasy, as a genre you need to stop it with the pointlessly naked ladies.)

In fact, it is a dual protagonist series, starring the eponymous wisecracking skeleton wrought from black magic and iron will, and a young girl named Valkyrie Cain who grows increasingly and impressively powerful. She owns her power and her gifts, never apologising for being strong and resourceful, and is given full reign throughout nine books to explore herself not only as a sorcerer, but as a woman shouldered with saving the world. Throughout the series, we see many clever, capable and funny women, some of immense power and strength. Some are good, and some are very, very bad, and it makes for a great change to see women on both sides of the moral fence rather than standing off to the side cheering on the manly men with the swords.

Basically, if the Harry Potter series was better written and Hermione was the lead, rather than second-fiddle to a deeply annoying and undeserving lead character, it might almost be as good as Skulduggery Pleasant. Might. Could have used more fine tailoring as well.

In the newest and final book The Dying of the Light, the big, bad villain the series has been building up to over a couple thousand pages is on the rampage, having stolen Valkyrie’s body and using it to plan the destruction of the world, as well as whichever planets are nearby. We see the extent of truly unfettered power (the scenes in which Darquesse explores her newfound power of rearranging things at the subatomic level are gratifyingly horrifying) and the novel constantly twists and turns to the point I honestly expected one of those “EVERYBODY DIES” endings. So many characters make it back in time for the last novel – Scapegrace the Zombie King, Doctor Nye, Tanith Low, The Dead Men, the Remnants and China Sorrows – that this feels like a good send-off for the series. I have loved it since I accidentally came across the first one two years ago and read the first four in one delirious weekend. I adore Skulduggery for his wit and his compassion and his refusal to let his past ruin him forever. I will miss Valkyrie and China and Scapegrace, but it is grand to see a series come to a graceful and timely close, rather than dragging on like static at the end of a forgotten vinyl.

I can’t say much more about The Dying of the Light without spoiling it, but overall, this book was worth the year-long wait. It is packed with action, just the right amount of pathos without being sentimental, and within the greater battle between good and evil, it takes time to ask smaller, quieter questions. It is far more than a young adult fantasy series (ugh I hate that term) – it is a detective novel, it is a thriller, and a horror. Skulduggery Pleasant is a weighty and refreshing contribution to a genre that is in desperate need of fresh air and great one-liners.

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Review of Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Never mind the beer ad guy – Lauren Beukes may be the most interesting author alive right now.

Broken Monsters follows in the tradition of Moxyland, Zoo City and The Shining Girls in using cities as characters, backdrops and plot points. In Broken Monsters, Detroit is both ruined and beautiful, the corpse of a model to which artists and hipsters flock as others tut over her corpse and say its just such a shame, and for the grace of god etc. In this Detroit, bait of urban explorers and home of tough cops, a murderer is stitching corpses and art together, a man tormented and the bearer of something beyond his power to control. But this is no Red Dragon – this is something more sinister and beautiful than that.

UK jacket for Broken Monsters

UK jacket for Broken Monsters

Detective Versado, her daughter Layla, Jonno Haim, Clayton Broom and TK make up the constellation of characters that are all interlinked to the Detroit Monster. This story is further complicated by what it means to be living in this naked age of social media, of constantly shifting identities and the repercussions the online world has on day to day life. As we see the CSI Effect damaging the American justice system, the novel explores how the rapid nature of the internet might get in the way of careful, thoughtful justice. The references to websites that millennials live on are rapid-fire and likely to be missed by many readers, but that is of no harm: it is Beukes showing her love of the internet, an exploration of our love-hate relationship with the world’s repository of cat pictures and memes. I was filled with the fuzzies at seeing a mention of Nyancat, possibly the most joyous meme (other than Pope Happycat, maybe) to come out of the noughtteens. (Shut up, that’s a real word, I’m using it now.)

Beukes’ research is remarkable, and the ability to incorporate her bottomless research without bogging the plot down is a rare skill – it informs rather than lectures, and she fleshes out Detroit as she has Chicago, Johannesburg and Cape Town before. Her characters are each exquisitely well-formed, especially Layla and her mother Gabriella Versado. Detective Versado takes no prisoners and no shit, and unlike many other female detectives in crime novels, never needs to be saved from her womanly self. She swears, she drinks whiskey, she tries to give a dead child his dignity while raising a daughter post divorce with no time to do it in. While another character calls her broken, I don’t think people who are genuinely broken are so capable, strong and empathetic, and maybe the definition of broken depends on who’s using it.

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US Jacket for Broken Monsters

As always, Beukes covers a myriad of topics in each work; in Broken Monsters she covers bullying, the rapid dissemination of videos that ruin lives, urban exploration, grief, loss, divorce, police procedure, sex, the vastness of the internet’s invasive reach, hipsters, the art scene, homelessness, revenge, the proliferation of cyber-paedophilia, alcoholism, Detroit as the corpse of America’s hopes, clickbaiting, pottery, fucking Buzzfeed and Upworthy, and Santeria. While the novel does teeter near the line of claustrophobia with so many ideas battling for even a scrap of the spotlight, it contains and expresses its ideas in small details, settings and turns of phrase. Also: hooray for thorough editing. Not a single spelling or grammar mistake in the entire work, which is indeed a rare joy these days. One day when I am big, I hope to put my work before Helen Moffett, Beukes’ editor.

I hesitate to use the word paranormal because that word has been completely ruined by ridiculous ghost-hunting shows and drippy teen novels, but this story does push at the boundaries of what’s real, what lies on the other side of the dimensional fabric and what gives the monsters power. It manages to infuse the story with a sense of genuine horror without getting Lovecraftian (Lovecraft was a racist asshole, which is worth knowing)  and instead doing something more avant-garde with horror. (The birds! The glass! The flowers! The tattoos!) There is also a gorgeous reference to Our Patron Saint of the Internet Neil Gaiman‘s stupendous American Gods, another delicious treat for pretentious people like me who like to catch references like other people catch pokemon.

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The best jacket: the SA jacket by Joey Hi-Fi

Beukes is a novelist of unflinchingly keen eye and ambitious ideas, her body of work constantly building on some themes while incorporating others. Her love of the cityscape is palpable in her work, and her social commentary biting. Brett Easton Ellis should take notes. If she is capable of writing novels of this kind of depth once a year, I feel that we are in for a treat as readers.

 

Broken Monsters will be available in South Africa from July from Random House Struik

Watch the terrifying and eerily perfect trailer below: