THE THIN EXECUTIONER was reportedly inspired by the classic THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, an interesting detail in light of the fact that Darren Shan is an author of horror fiction. I’m not familiar with his Demonata series, but I have read the first several Cirque du Freak books and loved those, so I was curious to see what his latest labor would be like. After finishing it, I would say that Shan's fans should be thrilled about this new experience. The book has much of the same twisted charm and magic as in Cirque du Freak but is more complex, less funny and more solemn. It would be appropriate for older audiences (YA and adult) and hits the mark somewhere between entertainment-focused horror and literature.
THE THIN EXECUTIONER is an imaginative story about the many adventures and lengthy travels of a "valued" member of society alongside his slave. Jebel Rum is a boy whose physical disadvantages have left him unable to win the mukhayret tournament, the trial by which men gain the prestigious post of high executioner. This is a post currently held by his father, and Jebel wishes to follow in his footsteps.
He has become caught up in rumors that tell of the gift of invincibility, bestowed upon any willing to sacrifice a human to the fire god of Tubaygat. Lured by his dreams of greatness and enticed by thoughts of claiming a beautiful, hard-hearted woman, Jebel sets off on foot on the long journey to the distant mountain. By his side is the slave Tel Hesani, a fatherly man who has agreed to sacrifice himself for the boy's honor and who hopes to save his family from a life of slavery.
Jebel is an uncompromising person with an exceedingly distorted sense of right and wrong, but is no different from the others in the Um Aineh tribe. These are people who teach their children to despise weakness and suppress emotion, and so it's perfectly natural for young men to desire to be warriors and killers of any sort. Jebel is ignorant about the outside world and depends upon his slave for guidance. Experienced, quick and clever, Tel Hesani is frequently disrespectful about his master's "superior status" and only begrudgingly follows orders. The two don't like each other, but the slave proves to be honorable and loyal in the face of many chances to escape, becoming an indispensible guide and the key to reaching their destination alive.
True to his upbringing, Jebel has savage thoughts and no tenderness for those who are ill-treated. He feels no guilt in following through with his purpose, and, like other Um Ainehs, has strong ideas about the difference between citizens and slaves. Masters within Wadi are free to abuse and degrade slaves as they are seen as mere property. A long way into their travels, Jebel remains unfaltering in valuing his honor above all else, and his worldview is so resolutely set that the only hope for his enlightenment lies in exposure to many different people and ideas. Their travels take the two of them to distant lands and into some truly horrifying and gruesome situations. By the end, both are world-weary and so battered that they've nearly died before reaching the mountain. By then, Jebel has changed enough to no longer fit in with his people. It is in experiencing firsthand true savagery directed at him --- and in knowing there is no escape --- that Jebel begins to see things differently and to question what it means to be civilized.
I really enjoyed THE THIN EXECUTIONER, and, after reading only a few of Darren Shan's novels, count him as one of my favorite YA authors. I won't compare this book to the source of Shan's inspiration, HUCK FINN, simply because I believe both are uniquely valuable and very dissimilar. Readers should be aware, though, that this is horror and thus doesn't dwell on boyish misadventures. It is uniquely dark in both mood and subject, and the creativity and spirit of storytelling here will keep audiences absolutely riveted. The many elevated themes will also satisfy readers who enjoy more introspection. Fans of horror and fantasy will definitely want to add this book to their lists, and I'll be keeping it on my permanent bookshelf to read over again.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on August 1, 2010