Cirque du Freak
by Darren Shan
Does the world of teen lit have room for another vampire saga? It had better. Before Twilight was a gleam in Stephenie Meyer's eye, dozens of Book Trolley visitors were demanding that I read this book and its bevy of sequels. The series has flourished very quickly, with a total of twelve books (arranged in four trilogies) since the year 2000, and an upcoming film titled Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, based on the first trilogy.
Because different editions have been issued with changing titles, a few words need to be said about the title. This book was originally, and officially still is, titled simply Cirque du Freak. In the some editions, and in some lists of titles in the series, it seems to be titled or subtitled A Living Nightmare. The series as a whole is sometimes called Cirque du Freak and, I think more definitively, The Saga of Darren Shan. Each trilogy within the series has its own title, distinct from the series as a whole. The full list of titles runs as follows:
- Vampire Blood (1st trilogy)
- Cirque du Freak
- The Vampire's Assistant
- Tunnels of Blood
- Vampire Rites (2nd trilogy)
- Vampire Mountain
- Trials of Death
- The Vampire Prince
- Vampire War (3rd trilogy)
- Hunters of the Dusk
- Allies of the Night
- Killers of the Dawn
- Vampire Destiny (4th trilogy)
- The Lake of Souls
- Lord of the Shadows
- Sons of Destiny
Expect a quiz on this later. In the meantime, I've finally decided to take my readers' advice and read this series, so that I can properly hate the movie as befits a fan of the books. Will I be a fan of the books? Even after reading Book 1, it's too early to tell. It doesn't have the erotically charged atmospherics of the Anne Rice vampire novels, or even the teen romance of Stephenie Meyer's ditto. But it does reinvent the vampire legend in a neat way. And from a preteen boys' point of view, it's a pretty cool story. My only comnplaint, at this stage, is that you seem to have to read a whole trilogy to get a book's worth of story. On the other hand, you could say the same thing about the Twilight
series - and those books are much longer!
Cirque du Freak purports to be a memoir of one Darren Shan. The fact that the main character shares his name with the author is a bit spooky, to start with; never mind that he tells us, right up front, that it's not his real name. As an English schoolboy, Darren excels at soccer, gets along famously with his parents and his kid sister, and commands the friendship of a troublemaker and bully named Steve Leonard, a.k.a. Steve Leopard. It isn't always easy to sympathize with Darren, because at times he has really bad judgment and his choices are not based on the best motives. But I suppose that makes him all the more believable. This becomes important as the things happening to Darren become increasingly unbelievable.
First, a freak show comes to town. Steve and Darren manage to get tickets and sneak out one night to see the bearded lady, the wolf man, the snake boy, and other creatures both whimsical and gruesome. The highlight of the night, however, is Mr. Crepsley and his trained spider, Madam Octa. It's a highlight for Darren, who loves spiders and is captivated by the deadly Madam Octa and her tricks. Steve has another reason to be excited: he recognizes Mr. Crepsley as a vampire.
After the show, Darren is shocked to overhear Steve begging Crepsley to turn him into a vampire. The latter refuses after tasting Steve's blood, which savors (he says) of an evil soul. A little later, Darren sneaks into Mr. Crepsley's cellar and steals Madam Octa. When a trick goes wrong and Steve's life hangs by a thread, Darren goes back to Mr. Crepsley and begs for help. The vampire agrees, on one condition: Darren must become his half-vampire assistant.
The rest of the book tells the gruesome, suspenseful, and heartbreaking tale of how Darren fakes his own death, bids farewell to his family and his old life, and makes a lifelong enemy of his best friend. And that's only the beginning of twelve books' worth of dark, spooky, vampire adventures for Darren Shan.
This first book reads quickly and seems fast-paced, though only a few real events are spread through it. Darren's foolishness, his agony over Steve's grave condition, his helplessness to comfort his grieving family, and the all-pervading sense of dread will make it an intense experience for young readers. Yet it communicates to them on the level of equals, in direct (and imperfect) language they can understand. And it acknowledges its own spookiness when the narrator himself seems to shiver. Whether I would personally recommend this series to kids I care about, depends on whether I think Darren Shan will turn out to be evil or good. I guess I'll have to read further in the series before I can be sure.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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