Warning: This is the second book in the CIRQUE DU FREAK series, so this review necessarily contains spoilers for Book 1.
Darren Shan’s life is officially a mess after several monumental screw-ups which were detailed in the previous appropriately named book, A Living Nightmare. He has left home and joined the Cirque du Freak as Mr. Crepsley’s assistant. Mr. Crepsley is a vampire and Darren is now a half-vampire. Darren has super strength and speed and, he discovers, he’s dangerous to humans. He’s bummed out because not only has he left his family and friends (who think he’s dead), but he now worries that he’ll never be able to have any friends at all. He also despairs because he knows that, eventually, he’ll have to start drinking human blood…. or die.
Darren’s a sweet kid, despite his mistakes, so readers will be pleased to see Darren making a couple of friends in The Vampire’s Assistant. One is Evra, the snake-boy from the show, and another is Sam, a kid from a town near where the Cirque du Freak is camped. Author Darren Shan is wise to give us a little break from the terror as Darren, Evra and Sam act like normal boys for a while and as Darren meets his new freaky “family” and learns how to do his chores for the show. Readers will also be pleased to notice that Mr. Crepsley, who’s become sort of a father figure, is pretty ethical for a vampire. (Although, paradoxically, what he did to Darren in book 1 is not very ethical.)
Soon enough things start going wrong. There’s a camp of environmentalists nearby and one of them takes an interest in the goings-on at Cirque du Freak. When he gets involved, something gruesome and horrible happens — something that will haunt Darren for the rest of his life. I was grossed out and disturbed by these events and I’d recommend that parents read The Vampire’s Assistant before giving this series to a squeamish child. The massive popularity of the series suggests that many children can handle the horror, but I don’t think my 11-year old daughter can.
Author Darren Shan does a great job creating tension. Foreshadowing and short chapters with cliffhanger endings keep the reader turning pages. I didn’t believe in some of Darren’s actions, especially at the climax of the story, but younger readers probably won’t notice. (But I do hope they notice the improper use of the personal pronoun “me” instead of “I” in several of Darren’s sentences. Inexcusable.) (Update: Mr. Shan has informed me that this particular use of poor grammar was deliberate and is corrected by an English teacher who interacts with Darren in a future book).
I’m listening to the audio version of CIRQUE DU FREAK which is produced by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Ralph Lister. Again, Lister’s reading is a little too emphatic for me, but younger readers are likely to approve.
Cirque Du Freak (The Darren Shan Saga) — (1999-2004) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Darren Shan is just an ordinary schoolboy who enjoys hanging out with his three best friends. Then one day they stumble across as invitation to visit the Cirque du Freak, a mysterious freak show. Only two tickets are available, so they draw straws to see who will go. As if by destiny, Darren wins one, and what follows is his horrifying descent into the dark and bloody world of vampires. This is Darren’s story.
The Saga of Larten Crepsley — (2010-2012) Young adult. Publisher: The highly anticipated prequel to the New York Times bestselling Cirque Du Freak series! Before Cirque Du Freak… Before the war with the vampaneze… Before he was a vampire. Larten Crepsley was a boy. As a child laborer many centuries ago, Larten Crepsley did his job well and without complaint, until the day the foreman killed his brother as an example to the other children. In that moment, young Larten flies into a rage that the foreman wouldn’t survive. Forced on the run, he sleeps in crypts and eats cobwebs to get by. And when a vampire named Seba offers him protection and training as a vampire’s assistant, Larten takes it. This is his story.