When Larten Crepsley awoke and yawned one gray Tuesday morning, he had no idea that by midday he would have become a killer.
Born into an impoverished family, Larten and his siblings are forced to work hard. Every morning they trudge into a world of long hours and brutal treatment at the factory. His cousin Vur, slight and gentle, lives and works along with Larten "...twelve hours a day, six days a week, and eight hours on most Sundays, with no more than a handful of holidays every year."
Larten is resigned to the fact that his mother is oblivious to his existence other than the fact that he helps with the family income. She is not affectionate, has no time for playful children, and slaps them all out into the world as soon as they are able-bodied. His father, having worked in the same factory at one time, is somewhat more sympathetic and would like the boys to have a different occupation, but at the moment, this is how it has to be. The foreman, known as Tzar, is a vicious man. It is known that he has actually bitten off some noses and ears --- he does not fool around. Some of the children are actually slaves who have been sold to him; others, like Larten and his cousin, are under-paid workers. All are treated with the same distain and the same indifference. Indifference, that is, until something happens, such as talking while they work, not going fast enough, or dropping something; any small infraction can lead to terrible beatings. The slave children often die in service --- from starvation, overwork and the constant thud of Tzar's fists. They all live in constant terror.
Almost every day at the factory begins with having their hair dyed. Tzar likes to keep track of where each child should be at a given moment --- orange hair works the cocoons, blue the looms, etc. The dying process is fast and nasty, with the foreman dipping their heads several times into the stinking vats. Larten cannot remember the color of his hair because he has been working since he was eight. Even under such terrible circumstances, Larten and Vur still manage to enjoy and support each other. Vur has become like a real brother to him, and the boys often talk of how their futures will play out once they are able to get away from the factory. But all this changes the day Larten becomes a killer. Exactly how or why does a young boy murder someone?
One day Tzar begins to torment Vur. He has never liked the quiet, small boy and suddenly has the opportunity to use him as an "example." Vur is not working fast enough, and when he protests, the foreman begins beating him. As the children watch in silent horror, Tzar's fury goes completely out of control as he upends the boy in one of the vats. Holding his head down, he waits until the little feet no longer move. It is at this moment that Larten springs into action! In a fury to save his friend before it's too late, he hurls himself at the cruel man. Before anyone can move, Tzar lays dead, and Larten runs wildly from the factory.
Larten runs from a sure fate --- his punishment for daring to disrespect the man in charge. He really runs when he realizes he can never go back because there is no place to go, no home, no one who will protect and understand what has happened. So he runs for a long time. When he finally is able to stop, he finds himself in a tomb, and it is here that he finds the beginning of his new life. It is here that Larten meets the vampire known as Seba. There are certain things that an ancient vampire can offer a vulnerable boy. There are very big sacrifices that will have to be made if he dares to join Seba in this part of his journey. What can he do, and how will he make such a hard decision? Or is it that hard to fall into the hands of a dark and powerful force?
Going backward in time, Darren Shan now takes a look at the events leading up to his famous Cirque du Freak series. The success of these books has led to an amazing fan base, plus a wildly fun movie, The Vampire's Apprentice. For a long time, readers have been wanting to know the how of what came before, and here we have the first of four books --- Larten's life before he becomes one of the most powerful forces of the dark world, plus the introduction of an amazing cast of characters.
Shan's website offers more fun, adventure and exploration of Larten Crepsley and the upside-down world of vampires and vampaneze. Cirque du Freak fans will not want to miss a single moment in Larten's unforgettable, tantalizingly delicious world.
--- Reviewed by Sally M. Tibbetts