Known for YA horror, Darren Shan breaks new ground with "Procession of the Dead", a dystopian novel for adults. Fusing the supernatural, gritty realism and gangster noir, a flawed hero pursues his greatest ambitions on a bloody path to glory.
"When the Cardinal pinched the cheeks of his arse, the walls of the City bruised." This provocative opening line draws us into the sinfully fascinating and dark world of the City. It is a world of limitless potential as seen through the eyes of Shan's protagonist. Young, ambitious and willing to do whatever it takes to climb to the top, Capac Raimi comes to the City to take over the family business from his uncle. The family business of crime, that is. Capac takes very well to his new life --- legitimate businessman by day, gangster by night. Slowly he and his uncle rise in the City's crime world. But if Capac really wants to achieve greatness, he needs to gain the favor of the Cardinal --- the City's crime lord and unofficial ruler. So when the Cardinal's men murder his uncle and offer him a job, Capac takes it as an opportunity. He is stunned to learn that he has been chosen as a contender for the title of the Cardinal's heir and successor.
The Plot Thickens
But the higher Capac climbs, the more he begins to realize something is wrong. He can't remember his past before coming to the City. His friend disappears without a trace and no one else seems to remember that he even existed. He befriends Conchita, a strange woman with an even stranger disease and mysterious ties to the Cardinal. His mentors drop hints about people called the Ayuamarcans, but won't reveal anything about them. The more Capac tries to put the pieces together, the more clues he finds --- and the more confused and frustrated he becomes.
The only people who might know something are Paucar Wami and Ama Situwa. The first is a murderer more likely to kill him than talk to him. The second is a woman who, like him, cannot remember her past. Capac feels a passionate attraction to Awa --- but she is determined to expose the Cardinal's crimes and tear down everything Capac has staked his future on. But what's a future without a past? Can Capac sacrifice everything and everyone he cares about for his amibition? Is he even free to choose?
Betrayal, romance, murder and eerie Incan mysticism bring Procession of the Dead to a shocking conclusion.
Characters in the Novel
Procession of the Dead and Ayuamarca reference the Incan procession of the dead, and chapter titles and names of significant characters are also taken from the Incan calendar. Some of these characters are:
Ama Situwa: Capac's girlfriend, "Ama" is also Spanish for she loves. And she loves Capac no matter what he does --- which is not necessarily a good thing. A force for good, Ama reminds Capac of the cost of ambition --- namely, his humanity.
Paucar Wami: The assassin with snakes tattooed on his jet-black skin, Paucar Wami kills for hire but mostly murders for pleasure. A complete monster, he represents the extreme end of what Capac could become. Ironically, Paucar Wami recovers his humanity towards the end of the book even as Capac loses his.
Capac Raimi: The protagonist --- not quite the "hero" --- his name means "magnificent festival." Capac is definitely an anti-hero, and like many of Darren Shan's protagonists, he proves the old adage that "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions." At the beginning of the book, he is already willing to be a gangster to get rich. He wants to build a following to rival the Cardinal, a crime lord that rules the whole city. Capac does care for Ama and his friends, and even as a criminal he has standards: he doesn't want to kill. But by the end of the book, he has discarded all his scruples, sacrificed love and murdered innocents to find the truth and achieve his dark dreams. He is so changed that he can no longer feel anything but numbness and calcuation, let alone compassion. The anti-hero becomes a monster.
Fate and the Future
One of the most disturbing things about this novel is that while it is dystopian/science fiction, it is set in the very near future. In a truly horrifying scene where Capac is ordered to torment a Holocaust survivor, we learn not only the depth of the protagonist's brutality but also the fact that the unnamed City can't be too far off from our own time --- perhaps only ten to twenty years. The Cardinal's ambitions include hazy hints at nuclear war and world conquest, threats that strike a chord in today's fragile and changing world. While the supernatural aspects of Shan's Procession of the Dead are mainly concerned with telling the future, by the end of the book the future of Capac, the City and the world seems very uncertain indeed.
Readers may not like an anti-hero protagonist, but there is something to be said for Darren Shan's exploration of the darker side of human nature. Again and again Capac is given the choice to turn away from his destructive quest for greatness, but each time he refuses. His story is ultimately a tragedy, with his actions bringing about the deaths of everyone he loves and leaving him a cold, hard shell of a man. However, tragedy is actually intended to show the greatness of human nature, whereas comedy shows its weakness. If Capac is a tragic hero, then his fatal flaw is ambition. And while a happy ending leaves a better taste in the mouth, it also doesn't make us think as much. Plenty of popular culture features anti-heroes and tragic characters who lose the battle with their weaknesses: for example, Anakin from "Star Wars," Batman from the new "Batman" trilogy and even Dumbledore from "Harry Potter." Like these characters, Capac remains sympathetic even though his choices take him down a road to evil. He's charismatic, funny, sarcastic and capable of love, and his good qualities make his failure to achieve redemption even more tragic.