Reviewed by Dave Jeffery
Darren Dash is better known as Darren Shan, writer of the hugely popular YA Cirque Du Freak series. When not under the influence of pseudonyms, the writer is Darren O’Shaughnessy. Dash’s foray in the realms of fantasy is, at first, not such a great a leap as one might think. The stepping stones were laid out in his adult themed horror books Sunburn, and his slick – albeit bloody – crime novel The Evil and the Pure. Discarding his YA tag to move into gritty adult storytelling has been a seemingly effortless transition, indicating a writer who is keen to push creative boundaries and take chances. No surprise then that the nuances of fantasy were to come calling at some point.
Midsummer’s Bottom is based on the fundamental elements of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the premise that an amateur theatre company perform the same play every year. This is to the chagrin of their fairy overlords who are destined to watch every single performance as part of a nefarious deal made with Shakespeare when they helped him write the original play. They send in a very human anarchist to masquerade as a member of the troupe in order to sabotage the latest production and thus free the fairies from their obligation as eternal audience. Magic, subterfuge and dark humour ensue as the company, The Midsummer Players, rehearse for their latest performance. But is all as it seems?
The most obvious question that prospective readers may ask on reading the promotional blurb will be: is prior knowledge of The Great Bard’s original play a requirement to ‘get’ Midsummer’s Bottom. From the perspective of this reviewer the answer is ‘no’, the book is alive with its own pretences that make it distinctive, and the broad plot line has its own voice. However, there is a caveat that the subtle references linking both works may well be missed but not at the detriment of understanding either plot or narrative. Much of the background to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is covered in the preliminary chapters.
As expected by the off-kilter premise, Midsummer’s Bottom is an odd tale, one that effectively mixes farce and dark humour against the backdrop of conceits created from one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and manipulated by Dash to maximum effect. The narrative flits along effortlessly, and as one would expect from a wordsmith of Dash’s calibre, waxing lyrical as he moves The Midsummer Players – a set of pretty dysfunctional and overwhelmingly obnoxious characters – through his purloined literary landscape. The fey elements are well constructed, making this very much a fantasy tale, the impact of which is made effective by the cast of the ill-fated play being the brunt of the foul play that ensues.
Midsummer’s Bottom is an acquired read, filled with nods to the source material but easily a book that stands in its own light. Dash has broken free of his traditional roots and embarked on an audacious venture, and this needs to be applauded. It is the view of this reviewer that for the fantasy genre to evolve and remain fresh, bold moves such as this are very much needed.
Recommended reading for those who enjoy their fantasy laced with adult farce and dark humour.