The publication of a new Darren Shan book is always something of an event at the school where I teach - in the weeks running up to release date we have a constant stream of boys coming in to the library to ask if we have it yet. There are only a very small number of authors whose books have this effect on our boys, which goes to show how important Darren's books have become in encouraging boys to read. Anthony Horowitz brought the action genre to life with his Alex Rider books, and in the same way Mr Shan has done this for horror. We often read about new YA horror authors being heralded as the new Darren Shan, but many people probably don't know that Darren received many rejections when he first took his original Saga to publishers - horror for kids didn't exist outside R.L. Sine and the output of Point Horror, and publishers were very nervous about books like this. With some of the titles on the market these days it is hard to believe how things have changed in only ten years, with horror now being one of the most popular geners for younger readers, and especially boys.
Being the kind, thoughtful teacher that I am, I had great fun in making the boys at school aware that I had already received my copy of Ocean of Blood some time ago. I didn't even hold back from telling them just how good it was - possibly one of my favourite books from the Saga of Sarren Shan/Larten Crepsely world. It was worth it just to see the envy and frustration on their sad little faces (I am of course joking now). However, it is release date for Ocean of Blood today and I am sure a good number of them will be begging their parents to stop watching a certain wedding on the TV so that they can be taken into town to buy it.
So what makes Oceans of Blood so good? Well for me it is all down the the period of Larten's life that it focuses on. In Birth of a Killer we are introduced to Larten as a young boy, and we discover how he first became a vampire (and more importantly for some, how he got his bright orange hair), but in Ocean of Blood we reach his tempestuous 'teenage' years. These are the years that are amongst the most important in the development of what will be a person's adult personality; personality traits that can be dramatically altered by even the slightest intervention of an influential person or by what to others might seem like a minor event and yet they become the traits that a person will carry with them for the rest of their life.
Of course, Larten isn't actually a teenager in this book: when we left him in Birth of a Killer he was approximately forty, and Ocean of Blood starts off several years on from this, and goes on to span a further handful of decades. It's not often that a kid's books will tell the tale of an adult, and yet when reading this you rarely get the impression that you are reading about a grown man. Darren has written this book as if Larten is a stroppy, indecisive, hormonal teenager, which in vampire terms he is, and it works so well. Larten really does not know which direction he wants his life to take, and so he flits around trying to find the person or event that will help him make a decision. The opening of the books sees him running with the Cubs, a group of 'young' vampires who like to drink, gamble, fight and generally lark around. Life is all about having fun, and sounds pretty much like any gang of disaffected young people living in small town Britain, or students in a university town. Well it would if the favourite past-time of these vampires wasn't being part of a war pack, where they treat human wars as a spectator sport, visiting battles mid-action, watching the carnage and then feasting on the gallons of blood that soak these battlefields at the close of a day's fighting. However, saying that, it is amazing how many kids in schools around the world will quickly gather around and watch a fight in the playground at break time.
Soon, however, Larten gets itchy feet again and he and Wester returned to their master, Seba, and spen some time travelling the wilds of America with him, watching the battles of the American Civil War from a distance, rather than participate in the war pack activities that they had previously found so enjoyable. During this time they also hook up with the foul-smelling vampire General Vancha March, before finding themselves at the door of Lady Evanna, the powerful witch who is of great importance to vampires, and a person who will have a significant impact on Larten as he continues to mature as a vampire.
It isn't long before Larten, Wester and Seba return to Vampire Mountain, and it is this period in the story where we begin to see Larten at his most indecisive - he really does not know what he wants from life: should he focus on his training to eventually become a General, or should he spend more time travelling the vast world outside Vampire Mountain and make the most of this before taking on any kind of responsibility. These are decisions that many teenager and young adult has to make at some point, and in my years as a teacher I have seen many students go through this agonising process. However, I am not going to tell you which direction Larten chooses as I want you to find out for yourself, all I will say is that the choice he makes leads to moments of great sorrow, and also some scenes of great horror (it ain't called Ocean of Blood for nothing) which are amongst the best that Darren Shan has written.
Fans of Darren Shan will certainly not be disappointed with this book - I didn't want it to end as I desperately wanted to continue to observe Larten's personality slowly developing as he begins to become the complex character we first met in Cirque Du freak. The ending of Ocean of Blood will certainly have you gasping for breath and begging for your next fix of The Saga of Larten Crepsely, and fortunately we only have to wait until October for book three in the series, titled Palace of the Damned. My thanks go to HarperCollins for sending me a copy to review.