subter.com | 27 April 2010 | Anne Murphy
Have you ever had an inkling that a particular book would be really good, but put off reading it for a while? When you finally got around to reading it, did you kick yourself for waiting? I recently had that experience, but thankfully read those books I’d been putting off.For a long time, I noticed the Cirque du Freak series by Irish writer Darren Shan (real name Darren O’Shaughnessy) coming and going at the library. I also noticed it was popular with middle school age boys. So popular, in fact, that I witnessed more than one of them drop his façade of cool in favor of genuine glee when the next installment of the series came in on hold for him.That really caught my attention. It’s well known that many boys don’t spend a lot of time reading. Comics and graphic novels are popular, but it really takes something special to draw in the boys that might be a little bit reluctant to pick up a book. I knew I ought to give the series a try, but just kept putting it off – horror isn’t usually my genre of choice. However, last summer I brought the first book home and handed it to my son with a “here, you might like this…”He then proceeded to read half of the series of twelve books in the week before school started! Needless to say, I dove in too at his insistence – that way we could discuss the books together as we made our way through the series. I read many books written for young children and teens, not only because it is useful in my job at the library, but because I genuinely like them. However, I usually don’t read an entire series of books by an author. Harry Potter is of course an exception; because once you get started on those you must read each new book. And we also read all three books of Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass Trilogy together – much to our chagrin, as we found the last book to be longwinded and disappointing.The Cirque du Freak books are neither longwinded nor disappointing. Darren Shan has created a world in his books that draws you in from the very beginning, and keeps you enthralled until the last word of the last book. What is it, you ask, that Mr. Shan could possibly write about that might be so good? Vampires. He takes a fresh view of the vampire myth, and the result is the captivating Cirque du Freak series.The tale begins when young Darren Shan and his friend Steve sneak out late one night to visit a mysterious traveling circus, the Cirque du Freak. What they see astounds Darren, especially a man, Larten Crepsley, who performs with a large spider called Madam Octa. Even more astonishing is the fact that Steve recognizes the performer to be an old vampire he had read about. He tries to hide this from Darren, but Darren spies on Steve as he confronts the old vampire and begs him to help him become a vampire himself. Mr. Crepsley declines, and Darren runs home in fright at what he has witnessed. However, in the next few days, he becomes obsessed with owning Madam Octa, and returns to the circus to steal her. This sets into motion a chain of events that changes the course of Darren’s life forever, with the only possible solution being that Darren become Mr. Crepsley’s apprentice – and a half-vampire.From beginning to end, these books are full of unusual characters, from the various members of the Cirque du Freak to Desmond Tiny, the mysterious and very sinister man that appears from time to time to remind everyone that he ultimately controls the fate of the world – yet is giving them a chance to have a small bit of control over the outcome. Darren befriends Harkat Mulds, one of the strange hooded creatures known as the Little People that accompany the circus, and the loyalty they share with one another is a strong theme throughout the books.Darren soon learns the way of the vampires, which is very different from what the myths portray. They do not kill when they feed, and though they are fierce fighters, they avoid disrupting humans as much as possible. There is another race of vampires – the Vampaneze, who do harm humans when they feed. As the tale unfolds, Darren finds that an epic battle between the two races is coming, called the War of Scars. He also discovers that he plays a surprisingly important part in the outcome of the war, and reluctantly takes on the role of hero he seems destined for.That is as brief a summary I can give without giving anything away – and this is one series of books that deserve not to be spoiled for future readers. The twists and turns of plot literally kept me glued to the books, eager to find out what would happen next. An author who can successfully maintain that sense through twelve volumes, in my mind, is truly a master at his craft. I would think it would be difficult to end a long series such as this satisfactorily, but Mr. Shan pulled that off as well. I truly felt completion to the tale, and though I was a bit choked up, I was also left feeling hopeful.I would recommend this series to anyone with an interest in the myth of vampires, or as a gift for a reluctant teen reader. One visit to Mr. Shan’s blog on his MySpace account (how better to reach your young readers?) shows that he receives a steady stream of letters from appreciative teens and parents for the work he’s done. Even better, he accepts the compliments humbly and continues to encourage and inspire others.
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