wigglefish.com | 01 April 2002 | Kilian Melloy
Darren Shan was a normal kid: rash, reckless, out for a good time — especially if the thrills involved sneaking out at night. Then he went to a performance of the Cirque du Freak, stole a vampire's pet tarantula, and had to choose between life as the half-vampire assistant to a creature of the night, or seeing his best friend die. So began The Saga of Darren Shan.Shan the author has a way of presenting Shan the character with terrible conundrums. Usually, it's a moral dilemma: someone has to die so that someone else may survive. Sometimes it's a matter of personal ethics, as in Book Two, where young Darren must overcome his horror of feeding on human blood, or slowly waste away and perish. It's all in keeping with Shan’s desire that life be presented in a realistic way, despite the supernatural cant to the stories his books contain. It's also part of the way Shan incorporates a brilliant system of allegory into his tales, the blood-letting and impossible creatures he describes standing in for the more conventional agonies and confusions of adolescence. These books are good reading for young adults, but older audiences will find something to admire in the layers of significance each crucial moral dilemma Darren faces are engineered to include.In the current case, young Darren and his best friend Evra (a snake boy) accompany the tight-mouthed vampire Mr. Crepsley to a big city on a mysterious errand. Darren makes friends with a girl named Debbie (thus continuing the trend from the earlier books that interesting and meaningful guest characters will crop up to give Darren the chance to touch their lives — usually for the worse — and learn something from the choices he makes and the ways those decisions affect others) and tries to explain his joy at the notion of being someplace where they actually celebrate Christmas. As the holiday approaches, and Debbie's family warm up to Darren enough to invite him over for a Christmas Eve dinner, it seems that Darren will have the chance to avoid the Yuletide Blues and enjoy himself. Then — with perfect timing — the bombshell: bodies have been discovered stashed in a warehouse. Bodies sucked dry, Darren is alarmed to note, of all blood.Suddenly, Darren has another of those horrific dilemmas in front of him. If Crepsley has come here to kill, then he has to be stopped — and Darren will do the job if need be. But what will the cost be to the young half-vampire if he kills his mentor? Darren's rash course of action serves only to complicate the issue, endangering Evra and Debbie in the process, and confronting him with an even more diabolical moral crossroads. Before Christmas Day dawns, Darren will have to choose who among his friends lives — and who dies to feed a monstrous, ancient entity run amuck with evil.The author observes his habitual care here to make the stakes real and the process of resolution anything but facile. In fact, just when the reader thinks he's caught Mr. Shan preparing to borrow from a founder of vampiric lore, the film maker Murnow, the author deftly turns things around to take even his jaded readers by surprise. But there's always a balance struck in Shan's books between soaking the proceedings in gore, and keeping events from spinning entirely out of control, and here too the bright red line is walked with a sure step: life, Shan seems to argue, is a dangerous proposition, but manageable for those who meet it with open eyes and keep their wits about them. That's as good a moral to his stories as any one could hope for.Rating: 4 out of 5.
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