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Trials of Death    by Darren Shan order for
Trials of Death
by Darren Shan
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2003

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The fourth book of the Cirque Du Freak series, Vampire Mountain, began a three-part adventure, and ended with Darren facing frightening Trials of Initiation, for which the penalty for failure is a gruesome death. As the title suggests, this fifth volume Trials of Death takes our young half-vampire hero through terrifying trials that test him to the limit. But there's much more to this thrilling episode, which also involves the vampaneze, the death of one friend and a horrifying betrayal by another.

Various vampire friends (both Mr. Crepsley's and Darren's) help to prepare him for trials which include an 'Aquatic Maze', a 'Path of Needles', the 'Hall of Flames', and a 'Trial of Blooded Boars'. Darren tells us in his prologue that 'The world's full of vampires ... honorable, long-living, extrastrong beings who need to drink blood to survive.' Unlike the vampaneze, vampires never kill the ones from whom they drink. Darren needs all the extrastrength, determination and luck that he can muster to survive trials which slice, burn and almost drown him. If the trials themselves don't kill him, failure will still send him to the stakes in the Hall of Death.

Darren's trials are interrupted by the vampires' rare Festival of the Undead, with games like wrestling and martial arts, in which the pacifist Vampire General Kurda excels when forced to participate. We learn more of the ghoulish Guardians (more than I really wanted to know of their cannibalistic habits). And there are delightful details about application of the curative power of cobwebs and Madame Octa's lunch of 'bread crumbs soaked in bat broth'. Speaking of the venomous spider, it looks like there may be romance in the air for both Madame Octa and Arten Crepsley.

As this episode dissolves into treachery and another (wet) cliffhanger of an ending, it leaves readers with two questions. Who is Harkat really, and what is the traitor's motivation? I can't wait for answers in The Vampire Prince, after a riotous adventure that threw Darren into the depths of a maelstrom at the beginning and barely allowed him up for air even in the ending.

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