First, let’s get the confusing part out of the way. This is Book 4 of “The Saga of Darren Shan,” also known (at least in the U.S.) as “Cirque du Freak”—which happens to be the title of Book 1. Darren Shan is both the name of the narrator and main character in this 12-book series, and the pen-name of Anglo-Irish author Darren O’Shaughnessy, who in real life most likely isn’t a half-vampire like his in-book namesake. Since the 12 books in this saga are also divided into four trilogies, this book is also Book 1 of the second trilogy, titled Vampire Rites. I put this in italics, rather than in quotation marks, because (in my opinion) a single-volume edition of this trilogy would be less an omnibus than a single, complete novel. Of course, I base this only on my impression of reading Vampire Mountain. As I write this, I am getting ready to run down to the public library to pick up books 2 and 3 of the trilogy (or books 5 and 6 of the overall series), which I requested immediately after finishing this book.
I’m miffed, mostly at myself for not having the entire trilogy ready at hand before I started it, but also partly at the publishing genius which chopped Vampire Rites into three books. So my first critical note, I’m afraid, is going to be a complaint: This book simply is not a complete story, even at the level of “Book 1 of a trilogy.” The whole book does little more than build up to whatever happens in Book 2. Apart from a scary encounter with a mad bear in the middle, a sparring session in a vampire gym further on, and a not-very-climactic sort of trial at the end, this book in itself delivers little of the conflict and none of the dramatic shape (you know, like with a climax) one expects from a complete novel. It has an arduous journey in it; it introduces several characters who promise to do interesting things later; it sets the remarkable scene of the labyrinth of mountain caves where the vampires hold court, of the history and nature of vampire culture; and it foreshadows troubles and conflicts to come. But while it excels in the “beginning” part of a story, it stops short of having a middle or an end. For that you will have to read the next two installments, Trials of Death and The Vampire Prince.
My intuition tells me that even combined into one volume, Vampire Rites would not be a very thick book. Judging by its first part, it would be a fast-paced page-turner. I suppose it may be nothing but my own grouchiness that causes me to object to seeing it split up into three volumes—novelists have been stringing readers along like this since Victorian times, if not longer. Perhaps a better construction on it would be to view this as a serial. For it is true that the ending leaves you hanging, anxious to find out what happens next. Not very long story short: Young Darren, half-vampire assistant to Larten Crepsley, leaves the Cirque du Freak and follows his master on a gruelling trip through northern wastes to the hollow mountain where the vampire clan meets every twelve years. Though Mr. Crepsley resigned from being a vampire general long ago, he is treated with great respect, even by the princes who rule over the whole clan. But the tidings he brings, in the person of one of the spooky “Little People” who travel with the freak show, could shake the very foundations of vampire society. An enemy clan called the Vampaneze—blood-suckers who kill their human prey, giving all vampires a bad name—seems to threaten the more benign vampires with imminent destruction. And Mr. Crepsley’s decision to “blood” Darren at such a young age adds another level of danger. Now Darren must face a trial to prove himself worthy to be a Vampire General—even though he remains only a half-vampire—while ominous signs of conflict and betrayal stir in the shadows.
It is a testimony to Mr. O’Shaughnessy’s flair for storytelling that I cannot resist following this series, in spite of my irritation with the way it is split up. Also, as a low-level grammar Nazi, I twitch every time he uses something like “Mr. Crepsley and me” as the subject of a sentence. Surely a professional writer knows the language better than that. I can only guess that he does this (and does it persistently) as a character touch, while narrating the adventure in the first-person voice of young Darren, whose academic achievements ended with his mortal life at age 13. Placing all this alongside the series’ unique take on vampire lore and its spooky, action-oriented storytelling appropriate for middle-school readers and up, I find that it is, after all, a series that holds my attention. I can’t wait to find out what happens to Darren next, even though I suspect it may be dark, bloody, and violent. Vampire stories wouldn’t be so popular if people didn’t like them that way. Girls can have the “Twilight,” “Vampire Diaries,” “Vampire Academy,” and “True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse” series. Boys (and some girls), meanwhile, may be looking for some of the same creepiness only without the ooshy-gooshy bits. If that sounds like you, step up and sink your teeth into this series!