(August 25th 2009, HarperCollins)
Baron Vengeous, one of Mevolent’s terrifying Three Generals has escaped from a Russian prison. He intends to gain control of the Grotesquery, the horrific beast created from parts of the ancient Faceless Ones, before the next lunar eclipse. With the help of 13-year-old Valkyrie Cain, Skulduggery Pleasant must try to stop him before he is able to open a portal through which the Faceless Ones themselves can return to the world, and enslave all of humanity.
To say that Playing with Fire is better than the Scepter of the Ancients would be an understatement. This second volume is, simply put, just great. Almost every positive aspect of the previous book is improved upon and much of the negative points are allayed.
To begin with, the stakes feel much higher this time around, mostly owing to a better-defined main conflict. The action begins straightaway and the plot is immediately engaging. The throwaway action of the previous volume is here replaced with spectacular car chases, battles, and general derring-do that more than anything else feel a lot more central. Over-description is also less of a problem here.
Characterization, which had been at best archetypal, is improved greatly. This is especially evident in dialogue and humor that are far more character-specific. Some of the new characters, notably "Southern boy " Billy-Ray Sanguine, are also very entertaining.
The plot balances levity and danger well. (Characters will make jokes during risky situations and not only does it feel appropriate, it feels indispensable.) It’s also significantly more focused than in the in the first book.
The concepts of the Grotesquery and Vile’s armor are great, as are the abilities of characters. I especially liked those China Sorrows and Baron Vengeous.
The major mistake here is, I think, that fact the Lord Vengeous is undermined right out the gate. (He is captured by China Sorrows in the beginning of the book, but is freed a short while late.) This makes him, obviously, a less threatening antagonist.
The writing is still a little dodgy, and the author’s tendency of telling not showing is still present, if decreased.
Also, this book may contain too much violence and too high a body count for younger children.
Significantly improving upon the original, Playing with Fire is an enthralling, humorous, and highly-entertaining adventure with just the right balance of light and dark.
Get Playing with Fire at Book Depository.
For more excellent MG book recommendations, go to Shannon Messenger's blog.