Darren Shan, Cirque Du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan, Book 1 (Little, Brown & Company, 2001)
Darren Shan, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, Book 2 (Little, Brown & Company, 2001)
Darren Shan, Cirque Du Freak: Tunnels of Blood, Book 3 (Little, Brown & Company, 2002)
Darren Shan, Cirque Du Freak: Vampire Mountain, Book 4 (Little, Brown & Company, 2002)
Darren Shan, Cirque Du Freak: Trials of Death, Book 5 (Little, Brown & Company, 2003)

I have a twelve-year old daughter who is seriously into fantasy novels. She reads everything she can by Jane Yolen, and has recently discovered Garth Nix and Nancy Farmer. Given her interest in strange characters and stranger worlds, I thought maybe she'd like the Cirque Du Freak series. I offered — on several well-spaced-out occasions — to buy her the set. I'm a generous parent, and I like to see her read. And of course, I'd get to read the books when she was done.

Alas, her tastes don't (usually) include vampires, no matter how highly recommended the book. I couldn't convince her to read Cirque Du Freak, and I wasn't about to buy the books just for myself. But lucky me, they came up for review, and I was assigned the lot! And, my daughter gobbled them up — in only two days.

The books are quick reading, which might be one of the worst things I can really say about them. They are written for a younger audience than my daughter — although they are recommended for ages nine to twelve — but she enjoyed them nonetheless, as did I.

In the first book, Cirque Du Freak, the author Darren Shan introduces himself as the main character, a young boy whose age we never do find out. He insists the story he is about to tell us is quite true, and gives us several good arguments for believing him. I doubt even a seven-year-old would, but it's fun to pretend. He and three of his friends discover a freak show traveling through town, and do all they can — really, they are quite persistent and resourceful — to buy tickets and get in. Only two of them get to go, and the experience changes everything for them.

For Darren, life itself will truly never be the same. By the end of the book he has stolen a deadly spider named Madame Octa from a vampire — a Mr. Crepsley — nearly killed his best friend Steve Leopard, hugged and kissed his parents because he wanted to, and become the vampire's apprentice and a "half-vampire" himself. He is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, though that's not really his choice — he has made a deal that has forever and completely changed who he is.

Darren is a reluctant half-vampire — though he has resigned himself to his new role — and finds drinking the blood of humans to be very distasteful and unethical. But of course, he needs to in order to survive. This is just one of the things he must learn as a vampire's assistant, and just one of the things he confronts in The Vampire's Assistant, Book 2 of the series. He finds his new home — the Cirque Du Freak itself — an oddly friendly place where he gets to meet in person those same freaks who had entertained (and frightened) him only days earlier. He learns of the small, hooded creatures who serve the freaks (called the Little People), and who feed on furry animals. He rooms with the snake-boy Evra Von, performs on stage as a freak, has a scary run-in with a wolf-man and an environmental activist, and memorializes a good friend in a terribly bloody way. Book 2 is especially interesting because we get to meet the unusual characters at Cirque Du Freak up close. It is fast-paced, and sometimes the suspense concludes with scary or sad result. The expected doesn't happen, while the unexpected does.

Tunnels of Blood, Book 3, takes Darren on a new adventure, as he, Mr. Crepsley, and Evra the snake-boy leave the Cirque for the city. We're introduced to another kind of vampire — the vampaneze — a being that kills indiscriminately for human blood, turns an odd color from gluttonous imbibing, and hates vampires. We also learn about the history of vampires, their political hierarchy (yes, there is one — it even includes Vampire Generals and a mysterious central headquarters which we visit in the next book), and their system of laws and punishment. Darren enjoys a small romance in Tunnels of Blood, which he must abandon for further adventures. This, the third book, loses some of the momentum of the first two, as Darren tracks the elusive and highly dangerous vampaneze while hesitantly pursuing his crush, but it will keep most readers engrossed.

Shan gives a history lesson in Book 4, Vampire Mountain. Darren, Mr. Crepsley, and their vampire friend Gavner Purl face wolves and the vampaneze on their dangerous trek to Vampire Mountain, which is the "heart of the vampire world." Here, we and Darren learn more about the vampire hierarchy, and come to understand that vampires thrive on much more than blood. They are complicated creatures, and they have as many unique cultural habits as humans. Darren meets the most important of the vampires — the Vampire Princes and Generals, whose respect he earns through his cleverness and courage. In Vampire Mountain, Darren discovers his real strengths and weaknesses, learns how to fight like a vampire, and grows more aware of the political and social issues facing his new community.

In Trials of Death, Darren must prove himself worthy of being a half-vampire by facing a series of grueling tests that take place at Vampire Mountain. He comes within an inch of his life several times, as he makes his way through the Aquatic Maze and the Path of Needles, fights fire in the Hall of Flames, and fends off the Blooded Boars. Darren does prove his bravery, and demonstrates that even half-vampires have true emotions and ethics, as well as uncommon strength. Darren faces another trial no one has prepared him for, one that involves insurgency in the vampire ranks, as well as possible political corruption and betrayal. The book ends in a daring escape from the hands of the vampaneze, and a breathless leap into the unknown.

The kids Shan includes in his stories sound real. For the most part, they think and talk like real kids, admitting through the voice of the writer what they wouldn't dare say in front of their parents or to their teachers. Shan's kids are also funny. The freaks are, well, freaky; not just in appearance, but in personality. And the vampires serve as surprising role models, exhibiting loyalty, honesty, and compassion, and demanding of Darren regular self-evaluation and improvement. Importantly, female characters are at least as strong and as smart as males. Whether they are human, freak, or vampire, they earn the same amount of respect as anyone, and contribute largely to Darren's development. Together, they all — kid, freak, and vampire — create a world that is partly realistic, mostly fantastic, entirely exciting to read about.

There are a few very small references to drinking that might seem inappropriate to some parents. This is unfortunate, because otherwise the books contain a good number of positive lessons a young reader may not recognize as such. There is also a bit of gore and killing, which the squeamish would likely not enjoy too much. But the books are fun and engaging, and Darren is a kid with straightforward ethics and a good heart — a boy many kids will relate to and all readers will feel for. He learns and grows through the series, and faces challenges with bravery and cleverness; overall, he's a terrific main character. The series is highly imaginative; has a cool, contemporary edge; and is recommended for those kids who love good action that doesn't demand too much thinking. Cirque Du Freak is a wild, stay-up-late kind of read, and my daughter and I can't wait to see what happens next in the saga of Darren Shan.

[Nellie Levine]

For more information on Cirque Du Freak, please visit Darren Shan's terrific official Web site.