| 15 May 2009 | Andrew Wheeler
Some people stay in the same place their entire lives: joining the family business, marrying their childhood sweethearts, growing old in the bosom of their loved ones underneath the spreading chestnut tree their grandfathers planted. But they’re boring, so there aren’t many manga about them. People who go different places and do new things, on the other hand, are much more popular…Let’s get a couple of notes out of the way – first, this book calls itself just Cirque du Freak everywhere on the actual volume, but online stores think it’s named Cirque du Freak: The Manga. (Probably because there’s a long series of books for young readers under the “Cirque du Freak” umbrella title, of which this volume adapts the beginning of the first book, A Living Nightmare.) Secondly, “Darren Shan” is a pseudonym, and I know that definitively, because this is the story of a young boy named…Darren Shan – who loves soccer and spiders, is inseparable from his best friend Steve, and goes to a uniform-requiring elementary school in some unspecified place. But then one day the circus – the strange, mysterious, dangerous, secret circus – comes to town, and Darren and Steve get tickets. The show is creepy and surprising, mesmerizing and faintly evil, in the way of a thousand fictional circuses since Dr. Lao and Something Wicked This Way Comes.Steve is sure that one particular performer, a Mr. Crepsley, is more than he seems, and sneaks off to beg to be allowed to run away with the circus. That doesn’t work out, but Darren soon has an unexpected transformation from the same source. By the end of the book, Darren’s been torn away from everything he ever knew (and so on; you know the drill), given dangerous and ill-defined new powers, and made a mortal enemy out of Steve.Cirque du Freak shows its origins as a mildly creepy story for grade-schoolers in everything from the I-am-telling-you-my-true-story bunkum of the author credit to dumb names like “Vur Horston, the Vampire” to the moral simplicity of the choices that the characters make. Arai has an energetic but clean-lined shonen style, full of close-ups of distressed faces and overly-dynamic bodies, but that can only go so far – this is essentially a story for ten-year-olds, and so those of us substantially older than that will inevitably find it thin gruel.
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