The Saga of Darren Shan/ Cirque du Freak – Darren Shan
The Saga of Darren Shan (known as Cirque du Freak in the USA) is a 12-book long children’s series from Irish author Darren Shan released between 2000 and 2004. Although originally released as 12 distinct novels, they have also been packaged as four trilogies – and I think that this is the best way to read them should you want to physically look at a text. Otherwise, I highly recommend the audiobooks from Blackstone Audio, read by the talented Ralph Lister. The narrator does a spectacular job, consistently providing different characters with different voices and perfectly hitting the inflexion of the text.
The series focuses on ‘the struggle of a boy who has become involved in the world of vampires’ (taken from the Wikipedia page) – the narrative spanning several years and focusing on the development of said character as he realises that there is more to life than he otherwise could have imagined. Unfortunately, I saw the movie when it was released in 2009 and that put me right off the series and I have only just got around to reading them some 9 years later!
Being born in 1997, I was obviously not old enough to read the series as it was released, though I was a huge fan of Shan’s Demonata series which concluded in 2010 – where I met the author at a book signing at the ripe age of 13). This year I wanted to try and get around to kids’ books that I missed growing up – starting with Narnia and The Saga of Darren Shan, listening to both on audio, and I’ve had mixed results. I’m sure I’ll write about the Narnia books soon enough (spoilers: I really don’t rate them highly at all and found the religious (under)tones far too jarring in the later books) but here is my review for Cirque du Freak.
I liked it. I really did enjoy following the protagonist as he grew and slowly integrated himself slowly into the wider world. Of course, in a 12-book series, there is only so much I can give away before ruining the entirety of the plot so please excuse me as I talk in a deliberately sweeping manner.
The worldbuilding is rather solid – there are Vampires (the good guys of the supernatural world, only taking small amounts of blood when they need to) and Vampaneze (their bad cousins, who kill when they drink blood and are generally just not that pleasant). Of course, there are also humans with superhuman abilities (what else could you expect at a circus of freaks?), along with a myriad of other supernatural creatures. The idea of destiny and prophecy plays a large part in the narrative of the series, and I will say that you shouldn’t expect the books to revolve around only one location. I can’t say much for the risk of spoilers but, especially in the later books, I was glad to see the author expand on the areas available to our protagonists.
The characters are where Shan (the author) really shines, though. Yes, they are predominantly male, and yes, there is a lot of room for improvement for the few women present, but my days does he execute a well-thought-out narrative concerning his entire cast. A small act here or there in earlier books comes to mean something completely different by the time the series is over, and you’ll be finding yourself wanting to go back through the story and find out if there are any other nods that you may have missed. There a fair selection of nonhuman beings (as per the above paragraph), and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how Shan didn’t attempt to create a world where divisions between different peoples were unbreachable. The relationships established and developed throughout the series never failed to bring a smile to my face (even those of the antagonist(s)) and it is clear that the author knew what he was doing from the off. There is one particular long-running bond between our protagonist and someone who teaches him and acts as his mentor which I was especially drawn into, but it must be said that there are numerous other connections which I’d write about in full detail if this was a spoiler-post! Vampires constitute a large part of the cast of characters, and the way Shan creates them is unlike anything I have ever read before: they are just one step removed from average humans, but their society and their relationships are something quite unlike ours. I was more than happy to see so much of our time spent with a variety of different Vampires, and will perhaps look into Shan’s spin-off series, The Saga of Larten Crepsley.
The narrative seems to be immaculately tied together and doesn’t leave any noticeable plot holes. Characters die (usually rather gruesomely), and those that survive are changed by the effects of these deaths, new abilities are learned, friends become foe (and vice-versa), and most importantly, we do eventually get to see a conclusion to the saga. I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the series’ ending at all. I like a good, solid conclusion: good guys or bad guys, catastrophe for everyone, or happily ever after are what I usually expect when finishing a fantasy story. This ending is a clear subversion of the above options and… I’m not sure whether it was done for the sake of subversion or for true literary/entertainment merit. If you have read Shan’s Demonata series then you might know what I’m on about here.
There were other parts I wasn’t too keen on – there is a love interest some way into the series and it all felt forced and a bit creepy, the action of the male constituent definitely being too over the top and not at all natural in my opinion. There are also a couple of dud books which seem to have started as chapters and then been stretched into ‘full length’ novels (prime example of this being The Lake of Souls), as well as somehow underdeveloped sequences (particularly the conclusion of the aforementioned The Lake of Souls where we follow a couple of characters in their search to a life-or-death question, only to have the book tied together a little too quickly). A very minor nit-pick was the use of American vocabulary in a book supposedly set (at least in the beginning) in the UK. This was almost definitely a publishing decision rather than an authorial one, but either way, it felt forced and unnatural to me.
I’m going to give the series overall a 4/5 -it kept me entertained and interested even when I have what seems to be a never-ending TBR list. Having said this, it is definitely the package in its entirety that I am rating 4/5, if I were to merely take an average of the books’ individual ratings, I think that that score would be lower. The books just don’t work that well on their own in my opinion – which is why I suggest either reading the series as four trilogies in order to read more satisfying mini-arcs, or (if possible) listen to Lister’s audio versions (which are short enough to feel like extended episodes rather than a segmented overall narrative). I definitely preferred the Demonata series when I read that growing up, but I don’t regret my time spent with The Saga of Darren Shan – if you’re after an easily-digested kids’ fantasy/horror series then look no further. If you watched the movie and thought it was awful then please give the books a shot – they’re much better than Hollywood’s flawed interpretation.