bookloons.com | 23 April 2010 | Hilary Williamson
First the cover intrigues with its R. L. Stine look and 'Compelling' recommendation from J. K. Rowling. Then Darren Shan lures the reader carefully into his 'living nightmare' and builds up the suspense slowly. The young protagonist (we're told its Darren himself but that's not his real name) 'loved being scared when I was little', which is just as well as he's in for a lot more of it now. As a nine year old, he chose a tarantula for a pet, another sign of things to come.We first encounter Darren sitting in the school bathroom, where he is interrupted by his best friend Steve, who used to be 'a wild child' and is still the troubled result of a dysfunctional family. A soggy scrap of a flyer is found and Darren reveals that this 'mysterious piece of paper was to change my life forever. For the worse!' It turns out to be a flyer for the Cirque Du Freak advertising its Twisting Twins, Snake-boy, Wolf-man and 'Larten Crepsley and his performing spider - Madam Octa!'This is clearly not a show for the fainthearted so of course the boys must go. Some dubious transactions pull together the needed cash, Steve and Darren attend and are thrilled as much as horrified when the Wolf-man bites off someone's hand (it gets sewn back on). The freak show is unreal, brilliant and sufficiently gross and gruesome for any boy. Of course Darren is fascinated by Madam Octa; 'green and purple and red, with long hairy legs and a big fat body.' Oddly enough Steve seems fixated on her owner, whom he later identifies as a vampire.After the show, Steve reveals a side of himself that is new and worrying. Darren, who is basically a good kid, acts foolishly and does something which has very serious consequences for his future and for those he loves. The reader will not always approve of Darren's actions, but there are some moral lessons lurking in amongst the spiderwebs; though never overt. Speaking of spiders - yecch - I suspect it will be a case of parental revulsion only fueling kids' interest in the series.Despite the Rowling recommendation, Cirque Du Freak is not at the same level of writing as the Harry Potter books, but it's not far off and the imagination and uniqueness of the world are both up there. It's a very unusual mix of horror, magic and uneasy friendship, involving a true, though macabre, hero's sacrifice at the end. I'm fascinated to see where Darren Shan's saga goes next (the second book The Vampire's Assistant is due for release in September).My twelve year old son, an avid fan of Harry Potter and Horatio Hornblower, managed to polish off this book during a school day. He was reading it when he left in the morning and finished while walking in the door late afternoon - Darren Shan mesmerized him. Cirque Du Freak is a story that both teens and adults can appreciate. Read it in one gulp, preferably not late at night!
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