wigglefish.com | 26 April 2010 | Kilian Melloy
It's six years after the hair-raising struggle between Darren, Mr. Crepsely, Evra the Snake Boy, and the mad vampaneze monster Murlough. Life has been peaceful enough, but suddenly Mr. Crepsley announces that it's time for Darren to pack a knapsack and prepare for a long journey on foot — no shoes, outdoor gear, or winter clothes, mind you — because the gathering of vampires called Council, which happens once every twelve years, is upon them. Crepsely will have to present Darren, whom he turned into a half vampire and made his assistant eight years earlier, to the Vampire Princes and submit himself to their judgment for the transgression of blooding such a young boy.It's a long and difficult journey from the beginning. Before Darren and his vampiric mentor can even get underway, the diabolical Mr. Tiny appears on the scene to grace the pair with a couple of Tiny's "Little People," green-eyed creatures with an endless appetite for anything and everything as long as it's meat. Mr. Tiny says the Little People will serve as guardians; but what covert purpose does he really have for sending them along?Like a fractured, post-modern take on The Wizard of Oz, this otherworldy foursome makes its way through the woods, picking up friends and encountering dangers along the way. When they finally arrive at Vampire Mountain, it's no Emerald City gleaming with bright promise; rather, the famed Palace where the vampires convene is a series of tunnels and underground chambers that honeycomb the imposing peak of the mountain itself. And there is no all-powerful wizard waiting to receive them; rather, a small group of Vampire Princes sit in judgment over them, alarmed at a rumor about a coming war with the vampaneze and an ancient prophecy that the vampires will lose the war and end up hunted to extinction. Could Darren's fateful encounter with Murlough six years earlier have set the coming war in motion?Author Darren Shan has let his imagination run free once again. The intimations, so frequent in the first three books of the series, that vampires are a hard-living lot are addressed here with bone-crunching action. Something of the history of vampires, as envisioned by Shan, is revealed, along with magical artifacts and ominous prophecies. And as for young Darren, who must now be around 20 years old, he's still trapped in the body of a young adolescent and resenting it: time is going forward for everyone but him. This may be an exaggeration of the impatience young people experience as they wrestle with their teen years, but not by much. Shan obviously remembers the mixture of naivete and brashness that characterize youth, and has fun letting his eponymous character marinate in it for a while.Unlike earlier books, the plot doesn't lead to an obvious moral conundrum, although it does involve tests of character. Even Mr. Tiny admires Darren's growth "inside, where it counts." Nevertheless the main thrust here is to set up what feels an awful lot like a nascent epic. Many doors are thrown wide open: there's a murder mystery, the looming threat of the vampaneze, a new Vampire Prince about to be empowered despite his radical views on how to deal with the vampires' murderous cousins, and Darren walks right into a cliffhanger ending that will take him, in the next book, through Trials of Death (the title of volume five in the series). As Darren ages, slowly, so too the books, though written in a way that remains accessible to younger readers, are becoming more sophisticated and subtle, albeit a bit gorier and more brutal. (In one scene, Darren fights off a grizzly bear with the leg-bone of a traveling companion, killed only moments before.) It's all fiendishly delightful. The one reservation one might have, and it's too early to tell where this might lead, is Shan's introduction of a couple of "magic artifacts," one of which seems tailor-made to serve as the key element in either destroying the vampire race, or preserving it (depending upon who gets hold of it first). Echoes of The Lord of the Rings? A sly wink at Harry Potter and his various objets d' plot device? One hopes that Shan has foreseen the dangers of diverting his story into the realm of mystically powerful bibelots, but time will tell.Meantime, all is blood, guts, and eye-widening suspense. But is it too much for the kids who comprise the series' target audience? Naah! As a friend's son put it, "Some parts are scary, but I just close my eyes and it's okay." That's a fine way to put it, because Shan's books, this one included, have a way of building an unstoppable momentum, rushing along like a torrent. It's all topsy-turvy fun, with a few of life's lessons — not overly gentle, but folded into the story wonderfully well — thrown in along the way.
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