Most readers of The Book Zone will not need me to tell them that Birth of a Killer, the new book from Darren Shan, is actually a prequel to his fantastically successful Saga of Darren Shan series. One of the key characters in that series was Larten Crepsley, the vampire that first blooded Darren Shan, thus turning him into a creature of the night. Larten is a very popular character with Shan fans, and in my opinion is one of the author's greatest creations: his personality seemed so well developed, with his emphasis on the correct use of grammar when speaking, his moody, withdrawn manner and his flame orange hair (who ever heard of a vampire with ginger hair???). When I first read the original Saga I was left with many questions about the back history of this great character, and it would appear that Darren Shan felt the same.
The book opens with Larten as a young boy, working all hours loosening silk from the cocoons of silk worms in a factory with his cousin Vur Horston (a name familiar to Saga fans). Immediately we discover the reason for the bright orange hair, and inventive it is too (and no I'm not going to tell you what it is - you will have to read the book yourself). Darren Shan also does not keep us waiting long before revealing the life-changing moment in his hero's life, the moment that has him running away from home and very soon finding himself in the company of the vampire that will become his mentor and eventually blood him, Seba Nile. Birth of a Killer does not have the blood-splatter moments of the Demonata series, but it is still violent enough in places to keep fans grinning from ear to ear, and this early scene is one of those moments.
Although in familiar territory this book never seems like a reproduction of the previous series. Those stories were very much a coming-of-age story for the main character, whereas these are spaced over a much greater period of time. As such we start off with Larten as a boy, and then pretty much immediately after he has met Seba Nile we get to part two of the book, and we jump five years in time. Eight short chapters later and the narrative jumps through time again, with Larten now at the age of 30. The author set out to tell the story of a man who is over two hundred years old, in a mere four volumes, so temporal jumps in narrative like this are going to be essential for the story to be told. At times I felt that although getting older in years, Larten's character did not necessarily seem to be maturing in the same way. However, once Larten attended his first Council I realised just how immature and naive he was in vampire terms and this side of his personality made much more sense. I am still trying to decide whether I would have liked to see more of the time between when Larten meets Seba, and when he hits thirty - I think I will reserve judgement on that area until I have read the next three books in the series (the fourth due out in May 2012).
What I loved about this book was the way that Darren Shan explores the vampire world he created in more detail. These aren't your girly, romantic Twilight vampires, but neither are they at times the debonair, aristocrats of the Dracula movies. These vampires get drunk; they gamble; their personal hygiene occasionally sucks big time. At the event I went to yesterday Darren Shan explained when he created his vampire clans he had in mind the likes of the Masai, Samurai, Native Americans and the Celts - tribes of people where the male was dominant, and where you had all levels of people - from mighty warriors and hunters to beggars and thieves. This is exactly the kind of society that we see with his vampires - some wish to lord it over all and sundry, testing their physical abilities to the extreme during the Festival of Death, whilst disaffected younger vampires rebel by playing cards and drinking in a side tunnel.
If you have not yet discovered The Saga of Darren Shan then you could read this book before you read those others. However, I would recommend that you do read the original Saga first as I have. In my opinion it will be a far more rewarding experience to get to know the adult Larten first, and then discover the events and experiences that made him the vampire the fans love so much. Birth of a Killer will then have you nodding sagely to yourself as you spot a familiar name, or discover the answer to a long-wondered question (such as the whole orange haired vampire thing).
Yet again Darren Shan has delivered a book that will please his legion of fans. I must thank HarperCollins for the review copy they sent me. It is now availabe to buy in hardcover.