I reviewed the first two novels of Darren Shan’s The Demonata a couple of months back but this series was not his first foray into the genre of horror. To this day, he is probably best known for his debut young adult series, The Saga of Darren Shan.
The series spans twelve novels, further divided into four trilogies – Vampire Blood (2000 – collecting Cirque du Freak, The Vampire’s Assistant and Tunnels of Blood), Vampire Rites (2001-2002 – collecting Vampire Mountain, Trials of Death and The Vampire Prince), Vampire War (2002-2003 – collecting Hunters of the Dusk, Allies of the Night and Killers of the Dawn) and Vampire Destiny (2003-2004 – collecting The Lake of Souls, Lord of the Shadows and Sons of Destiny). Since publishing, it has been translated into 30 different languages and is still in print worldwide. For the purpose of this review, I will be looking at the Vampire Blood Trilogy only.
In Cirque du Freak we are introduced to a school boy called Darren Shan who enjoys nothing more than playing football with his best friend, Steve “Leopard” Leonard. The two boys’ lives change drastically when they receive tickets to a secret freak show. They both find themselves drawn to one performer in particular – the mysterious Larten Crepsley. Steve is fascinated by the man himself, realising immediately that he is a vampire, while Darren only has eyes for Madame Octa, the deadly spider that Mr Crepsley uses in his act.
Desperate to become a vampire himself, Steve begs Mr Crepsley to turn him but the performer refuses as he believes the school boy to have bad blood. Darren, however, is far more successful in his endeavours and manages to steal Madame Octa. At first, he seems to have gotten away with his crime but during a tragic accident Steve is bitten and the spider’s venom leaves him in a critical condition. Knowing that he needs to save his friend, Darren approaches Mr Crepsley for the antidote and is offered a terrible choice. Mr Crepsley will only save Steve if Darren agrees to become his half-vampire apprentice…
The other two novels in the collection focus on Darren’s first couple of years as a half-vampire. In The Vampire’s Assistant he joins the Cirque du Freak and becomes close friends with Evra Von, the Snake Boy. During this novel he struggles to accept the fact that he needs to take human blood to survive and fights to find an alternative, while also coming to terms with the fact that he no longer belongs in the human world.
In Tunnels of Blood, Mr Crepsley returns to his home town on business and brings Darren and Evra along with him. Although Mr Crepsley will not tell the boys what he is doing every night, soon news reports begin to talk of grotesque murders and blood-drained corpses. Although Evra remains optimistic that there must be some other explanation, Darren fears the worst. It logically seems that Mr Crepsley has begun to turn his thirst on humans and, if that is true, only Darren can stop him.
I suppose I better begin with my usual horror warning. Although this series is geared towards younger teens, there are a couple of violent scenes (including two disembowelments) that some squeamish readers may find disturbing. This series is nowhere near as gruesome as Shan’s The Demonata, but I think it’s still worth mentioning so that you can avoid these books if you are sensitive towards descriptions of gore.
I first read the Vampire Blood Trilogy when I was in high school and I’m really pleased to say that my fond memories of it are well deserved. The series is wonderfully unique and absolutely brimming with imagination. The Cirque du Freak provides a memorable backdrop for the first two novels and boasts a colourful gallery of characters. Although not many of them are actually important to the story, the chapters that describe the acts neatly set the tone and are utterly unforgettable. From Alexander Ribs, the contortionist who can play his rib cage like a xylophone, to the exotic Madame Truska, who can grow a full beard at will, the circus is described in such intricate detail that it allows the reader to feel as though they are truly there. I love this setting so much that I was actually slightly disappointed by Tunnels of Blood purely because it leaves the Cirque behind.
With regards to the quality of these first three novels, I feel that Cirque du Freak is probably the best of the bunch. The setting here was still brand new and exciting, and the double threat of both Madame Octa and Mr Crepsley maintain tension throughout the tale. While still excellent, The Vampire’s Assistant is a lot slower and I do object a little to the stings that end many of the chapters (“If I’d known how wrong I was…I’d have sped off after him and never returned to that foul circus of blood, that dreadful circus of death”) as they were a bit of a cheap way to create a tense air that otherwise did not really exist in this story.
The final novel, Tunnels of Blood, was probably the weakest of the three as it had an entirely different tone – being more of a mystery story than the other two. Although it probably was the most important of the novels as it revealed a lot of information with regards to how the vampire society is structured, it was the least memorable. The story also has a much smaller cast of characters than the rest and spends a lot more time focusing on Darren’s thoughts and feelings as a result. While this was not always a bad thing as it did provide Darren with a lot of emotional development, it did mean that there was a bit more exposition in this story and so the prose felt a little clunkier as a result.
One thing that really impressed me with these novels is how they portrayed vampires in a fresh and interesting way. The vampires of Shan’s universe are not immortal and can be killed in much the same way that humans can. They operate as a civilised society, run by Princes and policed by Generals, which has a great focus on honour and respect for life. Killing humans is only done as a way to preserve the memories of someone who is already dying (as such memories are passed on by the blood), and so generally a vampire will only drain a tiny amount from a victim in order to feed.
Due to the first person perspective of the series, we learn how the vampire world functions at the same rate that Darren does. Although he is initially ignorant of their ways, showing up to fight Mr Crepsley with only a crucifix and holy water as protection, as the series progresses our knowledge grows. The biggest developments to the lore come in Tunnels of Blood, in which Darren discovers that there are, in fact, vampires that do kill people (as they take the opposing view that it is noble to take on the memories of another). By the end of this trilogy it still feels as though we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Although many things have been hinted with regards to the way the Generals function, Darren has seen little of this world and so it will be interesting to see it expand further over the next few novels.
When it comes to characterisation, Darren is presented masterfully. Although I had some initial concerns that he would become a Gary-Stu (he just seemed abnormally nice for a boy his age) as the story progresses it becomes clear that he is more developed than this. Although Darren begins the series as a typical teenage boy, he rapidly matures through his experiences. The poisoning of Steve forces him to juggle between priorities – keeping quiet and staying out of trouble, or putting himself in danger to save his friend’s life. His heightened strength as a vampire forces him to learn how to act responsibility, learning that his new situation brings with it a need to take special care to avoid harming those close to him. The needs of his half-vampire body cause him to face some ethical dilemmas, such as if it is wrong to feed from humans if he is still partially one himself.
The relationships that Darren holds with those around him also develop gradually as the story progresses. His friendship with Steve gradually frays, even though Darren sacrifices everything to save his life, as his friend is unable to forgive Darren for gaining the vampire blood that he craves. On the reverse of this, Darren begins his life as a half-vampire bearing a powerful grudge against Mr Crepsley, even considering murdering him on a couple of occasions, but their friendship gradually grows stronger as they travel together. There is one more relationship that I think is worthy of mention – that between Darren and his family – as this bond is exceptionally powerful. Although I criticised Shan’s writing in my Lord Loss review because it failed to make me feel empathy for Grubbs when his family is slaughtered. This is not a problem here. The final scenes with Darren’s family in Cirque du Freak are utterly devastating because the bond that is established between Darren and his parents is severed with such sudden brutality.
When it comes to characterisation in these novels, I have but one complaint – the startling lack of female characters. In this trilogy there are only really two female protagonists of note – Darren’s younger sister (Annie) in Cirque du Freak and his girlfriend (Debbie) in Tunnels of Blood. Neither of these characters actually felt like real girls. Annie spoke with the maturity of an adult despite the fact that she was a pre-teen and Debbie’s contribution to the plot was minimal. She existed purely to give Darren a first love (and really did fall for him within three seconds of meeting him) but got no development at all beyond this.
Sorry, I’ve really been rambling on in this review so I’ll stop now. On the whole, the first three novels of The Saga of Darren Shan form a really strong start of the series. They’re original and utterly memorable, containing a unique cast and vibrant setting. Although Tunnels of Blood was the weakest story of the three, it was still essential reading as it began to introduce the key concepts of the series and introduce the plot threads that will carry over to the next trilogy. My only real criticism of the series is the lack of strong female characters, which I hope is rectified in later instalments. I would certainly say that the Vampire Blood Trilogy is essential reading for a teen horror fan, as it offers a very interesting take on the vampire genre.