Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments of this series. You can read my review of these novels [here].
The Saga of Darren Shan was written by Darren Shan and ran for twelve novels. It is a horror series aimed at middle grade and young teen readers that focuses on the adventures of half-vampire Darren Shan. The novels have been collected 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). For the purpose of this review, I’ll be looking at the Vampire Rites Trilogy only.
It is time for the Vampire Council and Darren and Mr Crepsley must leave the safety of the Cirque du Freak to embark on a dangerous pilgrimage. Their goal is Vampire Mountain, the remote stronghold of their clan, where they will present Darren before the Vampire Princes and celebrate the Festival of the Undead with the rest of their kind.
On the way there, they discover undeniable evidence that the vampaneze are also heading towards the mountain. Afraid of what their sworn rivals are planning, Mr Crepsley hurries to make the Princes aware and Darren learns of an ancient prophecy which speaks of the vampaneze eventually wiping out the vampires. Many of those gathered at the council are fearful that those days are close at hand.
However, Darren has more pressing concerns. It is unheard of for vampires to blood someone as young as he is and the Vampire Princes are not happy. To save Mr Crepsley’s honour, Darren agrees to undergo five trials to prove his worth as a vampire. It sounds simple enough but the Trials of Death can easily prove fatal for a true vampire. With the disadvantage of his human blood, Darren must work twice as hard, especially when failure carries an automatic death sentence…
Before I begin, a word of caution. While this series is by no means the most gruesome that I’ve reviewed (that title is still held by Shan’s Demonata series), it still contains scenes of violence and peril that may be disturbing for young or sensitive readers. Please bear that in mind if you intend to buy it for a middle grade reader.
Vampire Mountain takes place six years after the events of the previous trilogy and so we’re immediately introduced to a Darren who’s a little older and wiser, although his physical appearance has barely altered at all. While the Vampire Blood Trilogy felt a little disjointed (more of a collection of the early adventures of Darren Shan than continuous story), the Vampire Rites Trilogy has a very different feel. All three of the stories carry on directly from each other and form one complete story in their own right.
Because of this, I think it’s better to read the three novels together rather than separately. If you don’t, you’ll quickly come to discover that Vampire Mountain and Trials of Death end on pretty jarring cliffhangers. Worse still, very little actually happens in Vampire Mountain. It primary function is to provide exposition about all aspects of vampire history and culture. While this works pretty well when read immediately before Trials of Death, I would have been disappointed if I’d just picked up Vampire Mountain in isolation.
The world building of this trilogy is utterly amazing and is by far my favourite thing about the story. Although Tunnels of Blood started to introduce the concepts of the vampaneze and hierarchy of the vampires, Vampire Mountain takes these ideas and develops them tenfold. In my previous review, I commended Shan’s vampires for their originality and this really couldn’t be more true.
In the Vampire Blood Trilogy, we’re only introduced to Mr Crepsley and Gavner Purl but this time Darren meets many more vampires on their own turf. Through Darren’s narrative, we learn of their vast history, their laws and their love of fighting. While these things are initially appealing to Darren, he also starts to see the negative side of vampire tradition through his conversations with the pacifist, Kurda Smahlt. The world building is so intricately detailed that it’s impossible not to admire. While the exposition is sometimes delivered in rather hefty chunks it’s still never boring. Everything is presented with such vibrant energy that I always found myself wanting to know more.
This is largely down to the fact that Shan really knows how to keep the reader’s attention, especially excelling in writing intense and scary scenes. While the story is still told in first person perspective from Darren’s point of view, it’s now easy to forget that he’s just a boy due to the maturity of his tone and attitudes. This helps to further emphasise his development between the novels. While he was a young teen in Cirque du Freak, he’s now technically an adult. While his body hasn’t really aged, his mind certainly will have done. My only small gripe is still the unnecessary stings that end some of the chapters. I mentioned these in my review of Vampire Blood and I still find them clumsy. While there don’t seem to be as many of them this time around, I still found them very jarring whenever they occurred.
In terms of plotting, I personally found the Trials of Death to be the strongest novel. It was certainly the most exciting of the three stories. Each of Darren’s trials were really intense and held my attention start to finish. While I was never in any doubt that he’d succeed (he is the narrator after all), they really helped make the story feel alive, especially after the lack of action in Vampire Mountain. However, Trials of Death doesn’t stand on its own very well and benefits from being book-ended with Vampire Mountain (for the set up) and The Vampire Prince (for the very satisfying conclusion). The trilogy ends on a very good note, tying up the threads of the three novels very nicely while still leaving the hanging threat of the prophecy and the Vampaneze Lord for the next book.
In terms of characterisation, this trilogy is exclusively Darren’s story. He goes through a lot of personal development as he’s forced to confront and come to terms with some of the vampires’ more barbaric practices. His growth can be especially seen in the way that he talks with Mr Crepsley. Although Mr Crepsley is still very much his teacher the respect between them is now far more noticeable, especially by the climax of The Vampire Prince. There are no other characters of Darren’s age for him to talk to and so his closest friendship can be found in Harkat Mulds, one of Mr Tiny’s Little People, who is appointed as Darren’s guardian. While Harkat’s mysterious past is very intriguing, its secrets are not revealed in this trilogy. All of the other characters are adult vampires and most are really set in their ways, leaving little room for character growth.
My largest issue with the characterisation in this series is still the lack of female characters. In the Vampire Rites Trilogy, we’re down to one (not including Madame Octa) and she really does not come across very well. At one point, she even announces her inferiority to the male vampires (“Women are all the vampaneze are fit to face,” Arra retorted. “You are not worthy of facing men and dying with honour.”). As a female reader, I found this to be very disheartening. I’m not saying that every novel must have equal representation but we certainly do deserve better than this.
However, all in all, I did really enjoy reading this trilogy. While it still didn’t achieve the sheer memorability as the opening instalment (I still really love the aesthetic of the Cirque du Freak), it did succeed in expanding the vampire world and introduced all manner of concepts and prophesies which can be developed further over the second half of the series. I would definitely recommend this trilogy to middle grade horror fans and look forward to finding out what will happen next.
The Saga of Darren Shan: Vampire Rites Trilogy can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk