Derek Landy is, of course, best known for his award-winning ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’ series; which chronicle the adventures of the titular Skeleton Detective and his protégé, a young girl whom he meets at a funeral. The books bleed dry humour and warmth, and the entire series is woven together with a deftness and joy that belies its best-seller status. So, my question was always going to be, what next for Mr. Landy?
Demon Road opens with a scene set in a head teacher’s office that would be a great deal more uncomfortable to read (for all the humour that Landy can muster doesn’t quite take the edge off) if it was not so obviously unrealistic. That sets the tone for the entire novel, actually - extreme suspension of disbelief is exacted as the toll for joining Amber, the main character, but pay it and you will be whisked off on what the author describes as ‘an homage to American horror.’ Unversed in that genre, I cannot comment - but what I can say, is that Landy’s characteristically crisp and dry style acts as a carrier for the story very naturally.
His writing style is unpretentiously funny. He rarely bothers with building up amusing jokes, choosing instead to find humour in surrealism and unexpected behaviour. This is the Landy we know and love, chuckling behind his laptop as ever more outrageous things happen. That said his joking never detracts from serious moments, choosing instead to find very enjoyable lightness in unexpected, but not climactic, parts of the quest. By page two, I was chuckling. By page three, I was convinced that Landy was in his prime of storytelling here, even if the story doesn’t quite stand up to the excellence of the way he tells it.
The blurb is unclear but Amber’s journey is prompted by her sudden transformation into a beautiful demon (admittedly, she has red skin and horns, but still.) Her parents and their friends, all unnaturally beautiful, became demons thanks to a rite they performed over a century ago - in return for their powers, every sixteen years they are required to kill and eat the child of two members of their group. Imelda, one of the demons who saves Amber from her death, at her parents’ hands, explains all this as well as announcing she is unwilling to be party to this murder. This is the first moment that has serious potential to ring false – Imelda, essentially, is a ‘talking head’ character that appears to explain something (in this case, the entire raison d’etre) to the reader, via the main character. However, the sheer strength of Amber’s affection for the hitherto aloof Imelda, coupled with promises on her part of further treachery, is enough to carry this scene, and in any case, we are quickly whisked away in an old Dodge Charger in the companionship of the mysterious Milo Sebastian, a man who is as well-versed with weaponry as he is unfamiliar with small talk.
Here, it feels as though Landy has gone entirely the other way - Sebastian does not seem to have any interest whatsoever in explaining anything other than the very basics of their trip. This, though, feels like a very minor complaint - very quickly, we are distracted from this by the arrival of Glen, a cheery, dopey Irish sidekick who could be straight out of the Skulduggery Pleasant books. These three together embark on a series of adventures - although thanks to Sebastian’s stony silence, the motive and reasoning is often quite unclear. They aren’t any less interesting though, and Landy’s fusion of American horror and the American road trip is a pretty pleasing plot device. I loved the development of Amber’s character throughout - she has her own demons (. . . yes, pun intended) that have nothing to do with her supernatural journey, which pleasantly round out what could otherwise be a slightly unrealistic character.
My last quibble, which again is very minor, lies in the climax. Landy is a huge fan of the superhero genre, and this shows. The fighting is given in excruciating detail, which in places is actually a little distracting from following the gripping narrative. However, that’s a pretty minor detail, and more than that, it’s a question of taste.
However, these few details aside, what we are left with is a thoroughly diverting and enjoyable read. Once you’re in, you’re hooked, and as we join Marie, Milo, and Glen on the blackroads, you can be sure that whatever happens, it won’t be dull. It’s not recognisably Skulduggery, but it has the same mischievous and tumbling charm that characterises Landy’s previous work.
Is it going to change your life? Probably not. Is it going to make you laugh out loud? Most likely. It is definitely worth a read!
Written by Struan Duncan-Wilson