This book was certainly an interesting journey. I picked it because I was curious about Darren Shan, since I have heard much about the Cirque du Freak books but have never read them, and because the description said it was inspired by "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" -- and since I'm a high school English teacher, I have taught that book to my classes, and it is one of my all-time favorites among the classics.
But it arrived while I was deep in another book, and so by the time I got started reading this one, I had forgotten it was connected to "Huck Finn." That turned out to be a good thing, because it helped me to enjoy the beginning: the main character, Jebel Rum, is a young boy who desperately wants to follow in his father's footsteps, but unfortunately he has two older brothers who are much more likely to do so -- and since their father holds the honored place of Executioner for their city, only one of the three can take his place when he retires. The father shames Jebel, leaving him out when speaking in public about which of his sons will take his place as Executioner, so Jebel decides he will take on an impossible quest in the hopes of eliminating the shame of his father's dismissal.
The quest is an interesting idea, and Shan has built a very interesting world, full of disparate groups and varied philosophies and worldviews and ways of living: there are the slavers, the slaves, the Spartan warrior race; there are the people who live deep in a swamp and worship the alligators who surround them, and another race that do the same with vampire bats. There are peaceful people and violent people, religious people and earthy people. Jebel Rum is fairly annoying at first, but he is supposed to be. I didn't think as much of the other main character, Tel Hasani, but he isn't too bad.
The problem came around the middle of the book: first of all, it is too long. Jebel gets sidetracked from his quest and held up by circumstance, which is fine, but the sidetracks take almost as long as the quest itself, and not all of them are interesting. With all of the detail that Shan puts into the various groups that Jebel meets, it feels like the book meanders too much. The second problem was that I happened to remember the connection to "Huck Finn." Once I remembered it, I couldn't help but compare the two -- and of course, since I love the original, this book just didn't measure up. I didn't like the way Shan re-created some of my favorite characters and scenes from "Huck Finn" (The Duke and King were a mistake, especially the names - this is not a political satire, and so they didn't fit at all); I particularly didn't like that he changed the most important elements of the plot, only keeping the idea of a long journey with a young boy and the older slave who takes care of him and misses his family back home. It's not that this book is bad, it's just that any book is going to pale in comparison to a classic that I happen to love.
But then I got to the end, and it was fantastic: there was a great twist, a REALLY great twist; and the message was sound and well-done, since we got to watch Jebel's entire experience along the way. I really loved the way the book played out.
So in the end, the story may drag some in the middle, but the imagination that went into it, and the excellent ending, make it worthwhile. But don't get this book if you loved "Huckleberry Finn" and you can't forget about the comparison: because this is a good book, but Darren Shan is no Mark Twain.